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Crop diseases still pose threat to food supply

By Anthony Fletcher , 15-Dec-2006

The British Society for Plant Pathology (BSPP) is using the Christmas period to highlight the risks plant diseases create in the food chain.

And not to put too much of a dampener on festivities, the BSPP has warned that such diseases have the potential to affect celebrations.

"The 12,000 tonnes or so of potatoes eaten have to be protected against the devastating potato blight, likewise Brussels sprouts from ring spot and white blister, carrots from cavity spot," said the society.

"Even the stuffing is under threat with blight of chestnut trees. Less obvious accompaniments include the wine (grape mildew), beer (barley mildew), coffee (coffee rust), and if there is any room left after the meal, the chocolates are from cocoa bushes that survived or were protected from the well-named witches broom or black pod diseases."

Indeed, plant diseases are still a major threat even in developed economies. 'Take all' for example, a disease estimated to affect half the UK's wheat crops, costs the agricultural industry up to £60 million per year.

The BSPP, which plans to celebrate its 25th anniversary next Tuesday, hopes to raise awareness of how significant a problem plant disease can be.

"These 'basics' are all taken for granted but are only there by controlling a whole range of diseases," said the society. "Also our homes really wouldn't be complete at Christmas without the 'trimmings' of 7.5 million conifer trees, potentially susceptible to Dothistroma needle blight."

The issue of plant and crop disease is of course applicable worldwide. Many cultures are heavily dependent on rice for example, which succumbs to Magnaporthe rice blast, arguably of equivalent importance in those producing countries to potato blight.

Indeed, currently 400 million tonnes of rice is consumed in the world each year, making it a staple food commodity for half the world's population. These sums mean that even the smallest alterations to the production of crops could have a major impact on the world's leading food commodity.

"Most damage is still caused in developing countries where plant pathologists can help to eradicate extreme hunger through improved food security and famine," said the BSPP.

"Major epidemics are still threatening the livelihoods and food supply of many communities with swollen shoot of cocoa in West Africa, cassava mosaic virus and coffee wilt in East Africa and banana bacterial wilt in Central Africa; all have major impacts on national economies and in turn the livelihoods of those in most need."

The British Society for Plant Pathology (BSPP) was founded in 1981 for the study and advancement of plant pathology. The society plans to hold a meeting on Tuesday to discuss issues such as the global impact of plant diseases, current and future disease threats, use of genes for resistance, the agrochemical perspective, and public perception of plant diseases.