USA - Pathogen threats to global wheat crop increasing and more R&D needed

31.01.2023 94 views

The threat posed by pathogens to global wheat crops is increasing as a result of the effects of climate change, researchers at the GEMS Informatics Centre (GEMS) of the University of Minnesota and non-profit organisation 2Blades Foundation (2Blades) have jointly warned in a new study (published in “Frontiers in Plant Sciences”). GEMS is an agri-food informatics initiative, established in 2015; one of its international partners is South Africa’s Stellenbosch University. 2Blades, set up in 2004, is focused on researching and combatting plant pathogens, to assist both commercial and subsistence farmers.

Climate change is increasing both the stress on plants and the natural ranges of pathogens, posing increased threats to crops. Currently, the top five wheat diseases cost losses estimated to range between $4.2-billion to $10.8-billion every year. Major wheat diseases are caused by viruses or fungal infections. Wheat crops are also vulnerable to weeds, insects and other pests.

GEMS used a new ‘multi-peril’ model, employing their data and processing resources, to research the economic effects of crop diseases caused both by individual and multiple pathogens. The results showed that, should a high-crop-loss scenario come to pass, the result would be an average shortfall of 8.5% in the global wheat crop, an amount that would have been enough to feed 173-million people a year.

“Farmers must contend with multiple diseases simultaneously,” highlighted GEMS co-director Phil Pardey. “We find the multi-peril risk facing wheat farmers is pervasive and problematic, with around 75% of the global wheat crop in areas where the climate can sustain at least four of these fungal diseases. Farmers throughout Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa are especially vulnerable.”

The resilience of wheat plants can be increased by using modern genetic tools when breeding the crops. But public-sector agricultural research and development (R&D) has generally not been prioritised. In the US, for example, public-sector agricultural R&D is now at its lowest level in 52 years.

“Our analysis helps demonstrate the economic value of addressing crop production threats at the R&D stage,” affirmed 2Blades president Diana Horvath. “For too long the US and other countries have been underinvesting in R&D, and the impacts are clear in the crop losses caused by disease, as demonstrated in our study, and by spikes in food prices and global hunger. These threats are increasing with climate change and ultimately will be far more costly in terms of human suffering and food aid.”

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