Researchers Propose a Global Network to Stop the Spread of Crop Diseases

(CN) – Global food supplies are at the mercy of pests that can spread crop diseases across multiple nations that often go unnoticed or are too difficult to contain in low-income countries, but researchers say they can stop the next epidemic with a coordinated network of agriculture experts, food scientists and academics.

The proposed network is outlined in a study published in the journal Science on Thursday.

A more robust biosecurity system could connect global trade partners to improve food security. The concept might sound complex, but the study describes it as simply monitoring stable crops and relaying information across the network.

According to researchers from the Colombia-based nonprofit International Center for Tropical Agriculture, Oklahoma State University and several other institutions more than 20% of the five staple crops that provide half the globe’s caloric intake are lost to pests each year.

In order to meet global food demand by 2050, production of crops will have to increase by 70%. This means collaboration will be essential in the coming years.

With the capricious nature of crop cycles due to climate change, and global trade ebbing and flowing on global leaders’ decisions, the researchers call for a Global Surveillance System that would prioritize six major food crops, as well as other important food and cash crops traded across borders.

Maize, potato, cassava, rice, beans and wheat would be closely watched by the system to avoid any catastrophic outbreaks that could threaten to destabilize a nation’s economy and the livelihoods of farmers.

In 2015, an outbreak of a disease found in cassava went unnoticed until the following year, and, by 2018, the disease traveled from Cambodia to Thailand and Vietnam. The disease is estimated to be present in 10% of all the farmland in the region, according to the study.

Mónica Carvajal from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture studied the emergence, spread and reaction to the cassava disease in Cambodia, along with a wheat blast outbreak in Bangladesh in 2016, and a bacterial outbreak that affected olive trees in Europe in 2013. 

Carvajal said a surveillance system on a global scale would prompt a quicker overall response to the outbreak and spread of these crop diseases.

“The question I asked was why does it take so long to respond to crop diseases in some cases?” said Carvajal, lead author of the study. “What is the limitation to responding faster from the outset?”

A Global Surveillance System would coordinate personnel at laboratories in agriculture inspection stations, along with customs and sanitary inspectors at borders and ports of entry, who sometimes only effectively screen between 2% to 6% of all crops.

The second line of defense outlined in the GSS network would be farmers, workers with national agricultural organizations, scientists at research centers and universities, and specialists within the farming industry. 

“Our reflection on many disease outbreaks is that whether in high-income countries or low-income countries, the passive surveillance infrastructure has the most in-field monitoring eyes but the least coordination from local to global,” Carbajal said.

The model proposed by Carbajal and her team includes a biosecurity system that could communicate rapidly spreading disease diagnostics and spread that information through professional networks, but also over social media.

Laboratories would communicate with risk assessment experts who could relay information to a data specialist. The operational management network would then provide governance for an integrated response that could be communicated across the globe.

“Our team realized that there is a big issue with communication, even when we speak the same language and use the same technologies,” Carvajal said. “One of the most relevant components is the communications network.”

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