Why early detection of disease can improve food security?

Why early detection of disease can improve food security?

Exploring the importance of early detection systems in disease management.

Disease is defined as the harmful deviation of normal physiological functioning caused by an infectious agent, commonly a fungus, virus, bacterium or parasite (Hall, 2018). In plants, this can manifest into huge economic losses; in the UK alone, soil pathogens can destroy up to £1.7 billion. There are many implications of disease other than economic losses which can hinder sustainable agriculture, such as: loss of crops in volume and quality; overuse of pesticides (fungicides, herbicides, insecticides etc.); and in some cases, it can lead to food insecurity.

As it stands today, disease management is advanced and ever-improving, with monitoring and control techniques and technologies in place to help mitigate the consequences of harmful disease. However, with the increasing demand for sustainable practices industry-wide and with an increase in the risk of pathogen development and host resistance due to climate change, then it is crucial to better understand the implications of disease outbreaks. Early detection of disease is incredibly important for the future of sustainable agriculture and for ensuring the health of our ecosystems.

What are the economic implications of disease?

Currently, the total value of crop output across the UK stands at around £8 billion (DEFRA, 2013). Crop loss is a major concern when assessing disease outbreak, leading to a net loss of profits in trade and retail, with further impacts at consumer level as market prices rise. With most cases of disease outbreaks, growers will see a decline in income due to crop loss, commodity prices will increase, and as such, economic stress will be placed both upon consumers and producers. As well as losses due to a decrease in yields, disease also has a direct impact on the use of pesticides and fungicides, leading to an increase in production costs. Already, billions are spent on disease management practices, with expenses leading to further losses in time, equipment and labour. The early detection of disease is extremely important for the avoidance of disease outbreaks, and will allow more sustainable disease mitigation strategies to be put in place, ultimately increasing profits.

What are the social implications of disease?

As highlighted in a previous blog post, it is crucial to ensure that we keep our soil healthy, as we are dependent on the land and the produce to meet the growing demands for food and fuel for our forever increasing population. Healthy soil, sustainable management of land, and minimising disease outbreaks can help to ensure high yields and high quality of food. As the current situation stands, disease outbreaks and consequent crop losses will not lead to a food security crisis, and disease management in today’s world means a famine outbreak such as that seen in 1840’s Ireland with potato blight is unlikely. However, this is not to say our current food supply is not under pressure, and losses need to be minimised. With a loss of volume and quality of produce through pathogenic presence, food increases in price. This impacts those most vulnerable, in both developed and developing nations.

In addition to the consequence on market and supply, the health of the public is also a concern when assessing disease outbreaks in crops; when disease occurs, pesticides and fungicides are often used in greater volumes to limit the impact of pathogenic microorganisms. The overuse of pesticides over time leads to a chemical build-up in the soils and in groundwater sources, or in the plants themselves, with the chemicals ultimately entering our food chain. Although often only acutely toxic, repeated exposure to pesticides can impact human health; respiratory irritation, allergic reaction, eye and/or skin irritation, sickness, and headaches (PAN UK, 2017).

What are the environmental impacts of disease?

The presence of pathogenic microorganisms can have a detrimental impact on soil health, as highlighted in previous blog posts. The presence of harmful pathogens in soil and water can lead to a decline in plant health, and in some cases can lead to a decline in biodiversity. A reduction in the natural micro/megafauna can be detrimental to disease management strategies, as a lower level of species richness is known to promote the growth of foliar and soil borne pathogens, and therefore decrease productivity (Creissen et al, 2016). Moreover, pesticides are often sprayed indiscriminately, leading to an overuse of chemicals. This can have a detrimental impact on the surrounding environment through chemical run-off and bioaccumulation, as mentioned previously. In ecological terms, agriculture is the largest source of nitrate, phosphorous and ammonia pollution in our water and can result in algal blooms, oxygen depletion and fish death (FAO).

Why is early detection so important?

Integrated pest management strategies are crucial for achieving sustainable disease management practices, whilst maintaining high quality and high yielding crops, on a regular basis. However, to ensure agricultural practices continue to move towards a more sustainable future, detecting pathogenic microorganisms in soils and water supplies prior to disease outbreak is crucial in achieving an efficient and sustainable cultivation process in which there is a limited impact on the economic, social and environmental sectors. An understanding of soil and water health and the use of early detection methods, such as those offered by FungiAlert, provide an insight into soil and water borne pathogens posing a risk to crop health. This will provide users with a detailed insight into soil health and help to assess the most effective way forward in terms of prevention, management and mitigation.

Megan Russell

11th January 2019

 

References:

  • Creissen, H. E., Jorgensen, T. H. & Brown, J. K. M. (2016) Impact of disease on diversity and productivity of plant populations. Functional Ecology. 30(4). 649-657.
  • DEFRA (2013) Tree health and plant biosecurity evidence plan. Policy Portfolio. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
  • Agriculture and the environment: changing pressures, solutions and trade-offs. Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.
  • Hall, A. (2018) What is plant pathology? Why is it important? APS. University of Hertfordshire.
  • PAN UK (2017) Impacts of pesticides in health. Pesticide Action Network UK.

 

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