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Three Spooky Diseases Feed the Future is Fighting

Three Spooky Diseases Feed the Future is Fighting

We’re getting spooky this Halloween with three scary threats to the foods we Americans know and love. The good news? Global partnerships are on the case to protect and prevent.

Bye, Bye Banana

Photo of woman in market with bananas

In the early 1900s, banana wilt disease effectively ended the Gros Michel banana grown in Central America and beloved in export markets around the world. Growers replaced it with the similarly sweet Cavendish banana, which the disease didn’t seem to affect. The banana market was back in business, providing one of the largest profit margins for an agricultural product to growers and others throughout the supply chain.

Fast forward to the 1990s and the nightmare scenario happened: Banana wilt showed up in Cavendish trees in Indonesia and Malaysia. The pathogen had evolved. It has since spread to nearly every banana growing area on Earth. Once established, it’s near impossible to get rid of. “There’s not a lot you can do once it’s there,” said Angela Records, a plant pathology expert with the U.S. Agency for International Development. “Once it’s in the soil, you can’t get rid of it.”

Farmers have tried drowning the spore by flooding fields, only to find flooding can spread it further. It can destroy an entire plantation in just three to four years. The only way to slow it down is to quarantine an area and kill all the plants growing in it, and move operations to uncontaminated soil.

This isn’t an option for smallholder farmers. Moving isn’t feasible. Banana wilt puts them out of business, forcing them to switch to growing less lucrative crops and taking an income loss on a farming operation that was barely making ends meet to begin with.

The export market’s overreliance on one type of banana is partially to blame. “We know better, so why are we doing this? Banana is so valuable it’s worth the risk,” Records said. “There are few options out there for bananas that taste decent for the export market and are good for [export] travel.”

The biggest fear is that banana wilt could jump from Cavendish to local varieties grown and consumed in places like Africa, where banana is a $4.3 billion business and 100 million people depend on it for a living. The fungus showed up in Mozambique in 2013 in a Cavendish banana farm.

USAID is working with international research centers to apply breeding and biotechnological approaches to speed up the development of resistant varieties, and help protect local varieties in countries where people depend on it for food and income — like Uganda, which has the highest per capita consumption rate of bananas in the world.

Experts like Records are meeting in a few weeks to assess the state of banana wilt and future solutions.

Cutting Down Coffee

Photo of coffee farmers
Photo by Patrick Meinhardt for Catholic Relief Services

Hold that cup of joe a little tighter this morning because there’s a plant fungus that threatens to stem the supply of coffee. It’s largely credited as the reason the British drink tea, as it shut down the colonial power’s venture into coffee production in Sri Lanka in the 1860s.

In Central America alone, 1.9 million people depend directly on coffee production and harvesting for a living. The industry contributes more than $225 billion to the U.S. economy alone, where it supports 1.7 million jobs. Unlike the banana industry, the growers of coffee are predominantly smallholder farmers. They lack the information and financial means to weather coffee’s price and disease shocks like coffee rust.

Price shocks compound coffee rust and the two are often found together. When prices drop, producers have less to spend on fighting the disease on their farms. When coffee rust reached crisis proportions in Central America in 2012 and 2013, 375,000 people — growers and harvesters — lost their jobs, sparking migration.

Coffee rust is spread by the wind, favors rainy conditions, and is moving to higher elevations in Central America. “At any time, the conditions could be right for it to be a big problem again,” Records said.

It’s such a scary problem that it’s brought the entire coffee industry together — competitors and partners alike — to address the dual problems of price shocks and disease that are putting growers out of business. USAID is part of an alliance of companies, nonprofits and researchers addressing the issue.

USAID has long supported regional efforts to get ahead of coffee rust in Central America. When the disease hit in 2012, USAID and our partners sprang into action. We put together an innovative finance option for farmers so they could access tools for managing the disease. We’re also supporting research to find more resistant varieties, as the fungus has evolved and is overcoming resistance in formerly resistant plants.

The Cereal Killer

Photo of researcher in wheat field
Photo by Daljit Singh

Blast disease is caused by a fungus that attacks the cereal grains that much of the world’s 7.7 billion people depend on for food every day. A well-known threat to rice, blast disease showed up in wheat in the 1980s in Brazil. It attacks wheat in two ways: the leaves and “the head,” the top of the plant. It can destroy entire wheat harvests.

It’s such a serious disease that screening for resistant varieties takes place in a level 3 biosecurity facility at Fort Detrick and at Kansas State University, a Feed the Future partner. To put this in perspective, that’s the same biosecurity level they use when studying Ebola. “We have it on our watch list,” Records said of the U.S. government.

Half of the world’s population depends on cereal crops like wheat for food. Millions of smallholder farmers depend on them for a living. The wheat industry in the U.S. alone is a $10 billion business.

Imagine waking up and wheat being gone — and the income associated with it. That’s what happened to Bangladesh in 2016 when wheat blast, formerly only affecting South America, showed up in the country. It hit 15 percent of the country’s wheat-growing area in its first year alone.

The fungus thrives in wet, humid environments and can decimate entire fields of wheat. Unlike other diseases, there is no resistant variety of wheat yet so the only way farmers can control it is through prevention and management. Planting at the right time to avoid rainy, humid weather is one option. As is treating seeds and plants with fungicides, although that cuts into profits. Both are difficult for smallholder farmers like those in Bangladesh, who have never dealt with the disease before. They lack the information as well as the finance needed for fungicides.

The U.S. Agency for International Development has been helping Bangladeshi smallholders get the information they need to deal with this new disease through a digital weather app. USAID and the U.S. Department of Agriculture also teamed up to screen Bangladeshi and Nepali wheat varieties for resistance in Bolivia, where wheat blast has already established itself.

More research is needed to fully understand blast disease in wheat and develop a resistant variety for farmers. The race is on — the looming fear for South Asia is the potential for the strain to jump from wheat to rice.

Keeping Up and Fighting Back

The challenge with any global pest or pathogen is they require constant innovation to stay ahead. Pests and pathogens evolve and adapt. They spread to new areas. They learn to resist chemicals.

Research efforts cannot rest. Feed the Future invests in a portfolio of programs, from those led by U.S. universities to international research centers, to develop innovations to tackle emerging threats.

“There are so many cases where we have successfully dealt with pathogens,” Records said. “It takes research. It takes support.”

And it takes constant vigilance. The U.S. has a well-established surveillance system to protect our agriculture and food industry. But as trade increases and more food moves further from its origins via export markets, vigilance on a global level is needed. The global community is in talks currently about setting up a global system for monitoring and sharing information about plant diseases as they emerge and evolve.

Smallholder farmers also need more options at their disposal to deal with the ever-changing challenges that diseases present. Resilience is paramount. If a farmer is barely making ends meet to begin with, she can’t afford the fungicides needed to stop a disease or the more drastic measures needed to quarantine it or rehabilitate her farm. One outbreak can put her out of business forever.

Feed the Future is working to build the resilience of smallholder farmers and the supply chains and systems they depend on. To secure the foods we love, we need to make sure they can keep producing, make a good living off of it, and keep supplying the global market.

Consider these threats to food security one less thing to be spooked about this Halloween.

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