Third World Crop Pest: As Invasive Species Threatens Production, Harvest Destruction Goes Underreported

By Ben Wolford on February 11, 2014 11:44 AM EST

pest control
Crop pests and diseases are severely underreported in developing countries, which could undermine efforts to promote food production. (Photo: Photo courtesy of <a href=)

As crop pests threaten global food supplies, new research shows that even our worst estimates of plant pathogens and invasive species worldwide are much lower than the actual numbers. That's because poor nations, where much of the world's food is produced, don't have adequate methods for detecting and reporting the problem.

The consequence, bioscientists say, is that developing countries won't be able to a fix a problem they don't understand. "The first step to solving crop losses is to identify the pests responsible," said Dan Bebber, of the University of Exeter, in a statement. Bebber and his colleagues published their findings in the journal New Phytologist on Tuesday. They found that if every nation were as wealthy as the United States, then the average number of pests and pathogens reported would rise by 200. These include things like bacteria, viruses, mites, beetles, and worms.

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Already, the authors were familiar with the data bias inherent in tracking crop pests globally. In September, Bebber and two co-authors published an article in Nature reporting that the spread of insects and diseases was growing outward from the equator. Climate change, they found, was warming the northern and southern latitudes and creating new environments for them. But the authors admitted that "developed countries at high latitudes detect pests earlier than developing countries at low latitudes."

This new research attmempted to calculate just how much wealth contributed to a country's ability to report pests and pathogens. To find out, they paired per-capita GDP with environmental data from the international nonprofit CABI. They considered nearly 2,000 pests and diseases throughout 195 countries. "The pest load of the developing world appears to be greatly underestimated," the University of Exeter reported. "This lack of knowledge may be severely hampering crop protection in some of the world's most important food producing nations."

Nearly a decade ago, the Annual Review of Phytopathology published an alarming report that said 800 million did not have enough food to eat and that one-tenth of all food produced is lost to plant disease. The University of Exeter now says plant loss is closer to one-sixth. Many of these diseases and invasive pest species are carried from poor countries to the fields of developed ones through their food imports. In Europe, there are more than 12,000 invasive species (though not all of them are crop killers).

"Pests and pathogens are on the move in the face of climate change," said co-author Sarah Gurr, referring to their September article in Nature. "Taken collectively, these papers draw attention not only to the threat of crop disease, and thus global food security, but also to our need for more trained pathologists to inform policy."

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