Plant diseases plague world trade

August 13, 2001

St. Paul, MN (August 13, 2001) -- Long before mad cow and foot-and-mouth disease, countries battled invading plant diseases. In fact, so devastating have foreign diseases been to the world's forests and crop plants that over the years countries have developed strict trade policies regarding everything from plant seeds to potting soil. But some are now arguing that it's time for a reevaluation, stating that over-regulation is preventing agricultural advancements from reaching the countries that most need them; while under-regulation in some areas has opened the door for the potential spread of emerging diseases. There is enough concern that the world's largest organization of plant health scientists plans to discuss these issues at their annual meeting in August.

States George Abawi, a plant pathologist at Cornell University in Geneva, New York and co-organizer with Rick Bennett (USDA - ARS, Washington, DC) of the special meeting on plant diseases and global trade, "Many diseases are no longer the threat they once were. But the restrictions due to these diseases remain, preventing scientists and practitioners from utilizing scientific advances that would greatly help movement of crop germplasm as well as facilitating trade in the global market of today. It's simply time for countries to reevaluate their policies and see what needs to be changed and updated."

Wheat, one of the world's most important food crops, is a case in point. Once traded freely between countries, an outbreak in 1973 of a disease known as dwarf bunts of winter wheat pretty much put an end to open trade. And even long after scientists learned how to control it countries like China and Brazil still refused to accept U.S. wheat. Only recently, after years of research and negotiation, the wheat trade between these countries has opened once again. But now a new disease, karnal bunt, threatens to create the same barriers to trade even though scientists are confident that the disease poses little threat to the agricultural health of other countries. It's mostly that the people creating the regulations don't necessarily understand these diseases and so they tend to overreact to the threat of infection when this grain could be of substantial help to countries whose people could use an inexpensive, yet highly nutritious food product like wheat.

Critics say potatoes and tomatoes are another good example of what happens when countries fail to keep trade policies updated. In the U.S., for example, there are tough restrictions against growing imported cultivars of potatoes and tomatoes. However, there are few restrictions on bringing these crops into the country for consumption. As a result, disease strains from other countries have hitched a ride into the U.S. on potatoes headed for American grocery stores and even though the disease already exists among U.S. crops, the severity of the outbreaks appear to have worsened.

It's situations like these, and similar ones, that will be the topic of discussion when the scientists meet at the end of August. They'll be given a complete overview of current trade practices and will hear about recent initiatives designed to help remove some of the barriers to global trade and improve the world's overall trading environment for those working in agriculture and plant health management. It may sound like a huge undertaking to try and get the world's major countries to reexamine their practices, but most are motivated. They know that in order to feed their growing populations and trade internationally, they'll have to become more plant health savvy. "And plant pathologists will gladly be there to help," says Abawi.

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The symposium on plant diseases and global trade will be held at the American Phytopathological Society (APS) Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah on Monday, August 27 at 2:00 p.m. Complimentary registration is available for reporters and science writers. APS is a non-profit, professional scientific organization dedicated to the study and control of plant diseases, with 5,000 members worldwide.

American Phytopathological Society

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