A Threat to Global Food Security
A vast number of plant pathogens from viroids of a few hundred nucleotides to higher plants cause diseases in our crops. Their effects range from mild symptoms to catastrophes in which large areas planted to food crops are destroyed. Catastrophic plant disease exacerbates the current deficit of food supply in which at least 800 million people are inadequately fed. Plant pathogens are difficult to control because their populations are variable in time, space, and genotype. Most insidiously, they evolve, often overcoming the resistance that may have been the hard-won achievement of the plant breeder. In order to combat the losses they cause, it is necessary to define the problem and seek remedies. At the biological level, the requirements are for the speedy and accurate identification of the causal organism, accurate estimates of the severity of disease and its effect on yield, and identification of its virulence mechanisms. Disease may then be minimized by the reduction of the pathogen's inoculum, inhibition of its virulence mechanisms, and promotion of genetic diversity in the crop. Conventional plant breeding for resistance has an important role to play that can now be facilitated by marker-assisted selection. There is also a role for transgenic modification with genes that confer resistance. At the political level, there is a need to acknowledge that plant diseases threaten our food supplies and to devote adequate resources to their control.