Plant Pandemics

By Charlotte Volk

By now, everyone on Earth has had their lives impacted in some way by the COVID-19 pandemic. Global pandemics rip indiscriminately through human populations, causing death and devastation wherever they go. Often, new disease-causing pathogens “jump” from animal to human species, infecting us with something that our immune systems have no defense against. However, animals and humans are not the only ones affected by infectious disease. In fact, researchers from McGill University and North Carolina State University are studying another, more insidious type of pandemic: the plant pandemic.

Plants are the foundation of every area of our lives, from the food we eat to the clothes we wear to the roofs over our heads. Certain plants, like corn, or the high-fructose corn syrup made from it, are in almost every single food we eat, including poultry, soft drinks, fish, ketchup, cookies, cheese, and salad dressing [1,2]. According to plant biologist Todd Dawson, about 70% of the carbon in the hair of a typical American comes from corn, showing what a huge amount of our nutrients come from corn [1]. Other plants make up huge parts of our diet as well, with soybeans making up approximately 10% of total calories in the United States, according to Dr. Joseph Hibbeln [1]. Plants like corn also power our cities, with a large part of corn produced in the United States turned into ethanol for fuel [2].

Like human disease, plant diseases are not stopped by borders or oceans. According to an interuniversity group of researchers, including Dr. Graham K. MacDonald from McGill’s Department of Geography, new plant disease surveillance, detection systems, and predictive modeling is necessary to prevent outbreaks of disease among plants [3]. As with human disease, it is essential that plant diseases are detected early, and that the spread is prevented before it escalates into a pandemic [3]. The same tools that the global community has been using to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, including data analytics and modelling, can be applied in similar ways to prevent plant disease outbreaks [3].

Unfortunately, plant disease outbreaks are increasing in severity and frequency, and show no signs of stopping [3]. In fact, researchers say that climate change will likely worsen outbreaks of plant disease [3]. This means that it is necessary to act now to prevent pandemics by increasing the resources and attention that is given to studying plant disease and modelling its spread. It is imperative not only to the biosphere, but to our own species’ survival, that we protect the organisms that are so essential to every facet of our life.

 

[1] S. Gupta, “If we are what we eat, Americans are corn and soy,” CNN, n.d. [Online]. Available: https://www.cnn.com

[2] R. Ferdman, “How corn made its way into just about everything we eat,” The Washington Post, July 14, 2015. [Online]. Available: https://www.washingtonpost.com

[3] S. Cardenas, “Preventing the spread of plant pandemics,” McGill Newsroom, May 21, 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.mcgill.ca/newsroom

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