Dreadful Doomsday Diseases
Coming up on the 10 year anniversary of the passing of Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, we’re talking about an exciting and cheery topic today: Diseases set to wipe out entire species of plants and animals and potentially bring about the collapse of human civilization!
We’re examining a few commodities in dire need of some Borlaugian-style technological innovations. Strap in.
The banana as we know it is doomed harped Popular Science this week. “We” being primarily American and European grocery shoppers, and “the banana as we know it” being the Cavendish, the variety dominating these two markets due to being best suited for international trade and transport. In July, the Colombian agricultural ministry announced that the Panama Disease, Tropical Race 4 caused by fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense fungus, was confirmed in laboratory tests, the first confirmed case in Latin America, a major banana production and exporting hub.
Bananas are especially susceptible to diseases because all commercial banana strains are clones of the mother plant. The banana we know with a fleshy, fruity interior is a sterile rogue hybrid of two wild relatives, not producing seeds so propagation takes place by replanting the suckers that grow out of the mother plant. Wild varieties are full of large, hard, inedible seeds. This makes breeding new varieties especially difficult as cross-breeding is a challenging task.
One of the most frightening aspects of the fungus is that by the time the plant shows any symptoms, the fungus has been in the soil for at least a year, and others walking through could have already picked up and spread spores. The good news is that it can take many years for the fungus to spread across the vast areas that make up Latin American banana production, giving time for researchers to continue efforts toward creating a banana less susceptible or figure out a remediation process.
Worldwide, there are only 13 banana breeding organizations, with 7 of them including A genetic engineering aspect. One positive side effect of the disease spreading to Latin America is there will likely be an increased effort and funding directed towards banana research, benefiting areas like East Africa where bananas make up a large portion of the local diet, and where over half of the total banana crop is now lost to fungal and bacterial diseases.
The worry of fungus exchange goes the other way too. Micocyclus ulei — South American leaf blight — is a fungus that attacks rubber trees and has made commercial rubber production in South America, the rubber tree’s natural origin and a prime climate for cultivation, all but impossible.
While a synthetic form of rubber is produced from petroleum, synthetic rubber has much different characteristics than natural rubber. Tire manufacturing accounts for the largest use by sector for natural rubber, and tires are made with a blend of synthetic and natural rubber. Natural rubber produces a more grippy tire, while synthetic rubber increases durability. Depending on the durability and grip requirements for the different uses of the tires, the percentages vary. While a smaller market, every manufacturer in the world relies on rubber for gaskets, belts, and other pieces of equipment.
The overwhelming majority of natural rubber is produced in Southeast Asia, mainly Thailand, and Indonesia, and Malaysia and around 50% of the total demand comes from China and Southeast Asia (production numbers below). So far, biological quarantine against South American leaf blight has successfully kept the region disease free. But the spread of the Fusarium TR4 the other way doesn’t bode well for indefinite containment.
The potential for the fungus to spread to Southeast Asia, where the vast majority of rubber production is located, would be devastating to the global economy. While some of the natural rubber could be replaced by increasing synthetic production and some other potential latex producing crops, manufacturing costs globally would skyrocket. The quarantine has so far kept the fungus out of Asia, but as the world continues to interconnect, it seems inevitable.
Not all crop diseases affect only the crop. Aflatoxins are from yet more varieties of fungus, typically Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus, which thrive in warm, humid areas. The toxins are associated with liver cancer and can be toxic in high enough concentration. Maize, peanuts and treenuts are the most susceptible to aflatoxins. And peanuts, being an excellent source of protein and fat and with cheaper production costs than other tree nuts, are used in ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTFs) focused on acute malnutrition for emergency feeding of malnourished children. But humans, particularly children, suffering from acute malnutrition are much more susceptible to the harms from mycotoxins and have a much lower toxicity threshold.
Rather than being destroyed, aflatoxins accumulate in the tissues and fluids of animals who consume products contaminated with mycotoxins. Animals fed with aflatoxin high rations will get sick as well as pass the toxins on. Mars Inc, one of the largest peanut buyers in the world, says that aflatoxin affects 4.5 billion people every year, mostly in developing nations, and particularly sub-Saharan Africa.
In many countries with a variety of growing conditions and efficient supply chains, higher aflatoxin grains can be blended with much lower to create a final product under the threshold set by regulators like the FDA. But in less developed nations, high aflatoxin product often makes it to consumers. And because the mycotoxin levels for RUTFs are much more stringent standard levels, manufacturers of the RUTFs have to source internationally and import crops from abroad rather than procuring locally, enabling local farmers.
There are remediation services that use compounds that bind and extract the toxins, but restrictive for all but the highest value crops due to cost. Numerous organizations are directing money towards programs aimed at mitigation, including increasing post harvest drying options, but limited progress has been published thus far.
FDA Aflatoxin Limits
African Swine Fever
The spread of African swine fever (ASF) has devastated the pork industry in China and continues throughout Asia. The disease has been confirmed in all provinces of China, and has made it all the way down the coast through Vietnam and in August arrived in Myanmar.
While not harmful to humans, there’s no vaccine and no easy way to control the disease and in many cases it has a 100% fatality rate in herds. In many cases, ranchers will cull the entire herd to try to prevent the spread.
China implemented consumer subsidies to insulate the price increases, and imports or meat increased 107% in July from 2018. But rebuilding the herd, and rethinking the model of massive concentration of swine herds particularly susceptible to major outbreaks will take many years to figure out.
Blockchain (& AI)
We’re expanding the blockchain section this week to include AI.
IBM is partnering with drone enthusiasts and using Watson’s AI to identify early signs of potato blight in Sweden. Potato blight is responsible for some of the worst famines in history — the Irish potato famines — and still regularly decimates crops around the world.
The early spotting of the disease allows farmers the effectively manage — whether applying a fungicide or removing and destroying affected crops.
Hopefully this pilot project is successful, and further implementation can be done for the diseases listed above. It’s surely needed.
“The improved efficiency, transparency and accountability of blockchain can considerably benefit government services in which several emerging markets struggle with inefficient legacy infrastructures and an inability to provide citizens with fast, accountable and transparent service delivery,” Ndemo said.
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-Editor in Chief, Josh Yanus