Plant scientists work to protect U.S. from foreign diseases

October 12, 2001

St. Paul, MN (October 15, 2001) -- Right now in some of California's most scenic areas, thousands of beautiful, stately oak trees are dying from a new disease never seen before in the U.S.; and scientists have few clues about how to stop it. In Florida, more than $200 million has been spent trying to control Citrus canker, another plant disease new to this country. Yet, despite intense efforts the disease keeps spreading. Problems like these may become more common, say plant health scientists, as new diseases make their way into the U.S. In an effort to assist regulators, the world's largest organization of plant health scientists is preparing a list of diseases posing the greatest threat to U.S. agriculture and forestry.

"We have always been vulnerable to diseases from other countries," states Dr. Larry Madden, a plant pathologist at Ohio State University "But with increasing world trade and more people traveling, the threat has increased substantially in recent years." Trade regulations have helped, but in order to enact them, the World Trade Organization (established in 1995 to facilitate international trade by standardizing approaches to certain trade policies) requires scientific validation for any requested restriction. And this, say the scientists, has put enormous pressure on regulatory agencies, primarily the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), to develop sound and defendable regulations. While APHIS routinely conducts risk assessments for various diseases, there are so many potentially threatening ones, that a detailed analysis of each of them is virtually impossible say scientists.

To help agencies like APHIS, plant health scientists with the American Phytopathological Society (APS) began work last year on a "most unwanted" list of diseases. Led by Madden, an APS member, and composed of scientists and government regulators, the group identified 42 possible diseases of concern. "The tough part now," says Madden, "will be determining which diseases pose the greatest threat." Previous attempts to predict such things have been difficult. "Simply because a pathogen is identified as a threat does not mean it will ever appear, and if it does, that it will do so in a way that causes substantial destruction," states Madden. "The reverse is true as well," he adds, "with diseases of seemingly small impact sometimes surfacing to cause great damage."

According to Madden, a more accurate assessment of a disease's possible threat often arises when a greater number of people can be involved in the discussion. With that in mind, APS has recently posted its list online and is inviting comments from its members and others with a special interest in this area. "This is a challenging task; but not an impossible one," notes Madden. "Our goal is to end up with a 'live' online list that can be continually monitored and updated as new information is received. We've made substantial progress, but we still have a lot of work to do."
Identifying exotic pathogens of potential threat to the U.S. is the subject of this month's APS online feature story and can be found at The American Phytopathological Society (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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