There has been a lot of controversy over how Covid-19 emerged. Over the past year and a half, Covid-19 – an invasive, highly infectious and virulent disease has devastated public health and plagued the healthcare system in India and around the world. At the same time, while remaining unnoticed at the level of urban politics, a troika of alien enemies has infiltrated agriculture and tormented farmers and their crops in recent years. Although experts have sounded the alarm bells for years, biosecurity, phytosanitary import regulations and quarantine measures have failed to contain the influx of invasive pests and diseases.
The first and main enemy of agriculture is the fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda JE Smith) which invaded the hinterland in May 2018. It is a devastating pest of corn and can now be seen damaging the sugar cane, sorghum and millets. The second unknown enemy is a new pathogenic fungal strain of plants (Fusarium oxysporum f. Sp. Cubense) “Tropical Race-4” (TR-4) infecting the banana plantation in recent years. Last, but not least, is a voracious migratory desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria), a gregarious pest that has become a nuisance to farmers over the past two years. In many areas, these pests have taken their toll as farmers grapple with effective management practices and control measures.
Compromising food security
The new enemies of agriculture are described as the equivalent of Covid-19 and have the potential to spread like an epidemic in agriculture and jeopardize India’s food security. It’s time for crop pests to receive the kind of political attention given to managing Covid-19, including urgently accelerated approval of new biotherapeutics and vaccines, prevalence monitoring, identification of micro-containment zones and awareness of appropriate behavior. . The strengthening of phytosanitary and quarantine measures, the elimination of anti-scientific prejudices against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and genome editing, the accelerated approval of biotechnological traits and crop protection molecules and the deployment of drones are some of the key areas of intervention for the prevention and mitigation of risk by pests and invasive diseases in agriculture. The Indian government must look beyond the fabricated pseudo-controversy and disinformation about the science of agriculture; enable a policy environment, streamline regulatory processes and monitor inter-ministerial cooperation within multiple regulatory bodies to achieve the goal of crop health and food safety
A recent rapid roving survey by SABC of forage maize crops in parts of Aurangabad Division in early summer indicated a worrying trend of Fall Armyworm infestation in maize fields forage that may impact commercial corn in the coming Kharif season. In addition, there have been reports of fall armyworm infestation of corn crops planted in the spring and summer in northern, northeastern and southern India. Close monitoring of pest dynamics is necessary and corn growers should be alerted to any imminent threats, if any. The rapid migration of the Fall Armyworm since May 2018 shows the pest’s ability to reproduce quickly, aggressive feeding as well as rapid migration to corn-producing areas. The agricultural R&D and extension system should not remain complacent, and farmers should beware of the voracious fall armyworm.
New fungal strain
In addition, a new fungal strain TR-4 was recently reported in 2017 and has emerged as a great threat to banana plantations in Bihar, UP, MP and Maharashtra. The banana panama wilt TR-4 race has made a leap across the world, starting with Taiwan, then Southeast Asia, Africa, and has now entered India. The TR-4 strain affects the widely cultivated exportable banana variety Grand Naine (G-9) and can cause huge losses to farmers and spread rapidly in soil and water. So far, the banana crop planted on nine lakh hectares remains largely free of pests, with the exception of some manageable diseases such as Sigatoka virus and Bunchy top. The large-scale banana plantation of Bihar, UP, MP, Maharashtra and Gujarat is vulnerable to TR-4 disease and can suffer from it if not properly controlled. None of the cultivars are resistant. Therefore, surveillance is needed to understand the infection and symptoms of this disease in order to take timely control measures. Currently, the only remedy is to identify plants wilted due to TR-4 and destroy them to avoid contamination. Sanitation of banana plantations is the best preventive measure.
There is no doubt that monitoring and surveillance are the key words for rapid response, control measures and effective management of invading enemies. The Desert Locust is the classic example of how proper monitoring enables FAO to provide forecasts, early warnings and alerts on the timing, breeding, extent and location of invasions. India experienced a locust outbreak in 2020 and we must now actively coordinate with the FAO Locust Plan to assess the possibility of locust swarms migrating from Africa to South West Asia in the future. The development of bilateral collaboration with locust hosts as well as with affected countries is essential to monitor, trace and mitigate damage.
Another big question is how biotechnology innovation would be available in our country to better control the fall armyworm as well as the fungal disease TR-4. The United States and Latin American countries have successfully controlled fall armyworm over the past 20 years using insect resistant Bt corn. Australian scientists recently developed genetically engineered bananas using the CRISPR genome-editing technique for the Fusarium TR-4 mutant. These technologies will soon be adopted by banana producing countries to overcome the unbearable impact of Fusarium wilt. In India, political uncertainty over genetically modified crops has already delayed the introduction of safe and proven biotechnologies in corn, soybeans and canola.
New vaccines and biotherapeutics developed by genetic modification techniques were quickly approved for mass inoculation, however, genetic modification in agriculture is delayed and denied to millions of farmers except cotton. Bt, successfully commercialized in 2002 and planted on 95 percent of the cotton area by 2020. Despite biological warfare, a strong political environment and strong impetus for R&D and innovation can eradicate the troika of alien enemies, improve the realization of farms and sustainable agriculture.
(Chaudhary is the Founder-Director of the South Asia Biotechnology Center (SABC), Jodhpur; Agale is a Research Scientist at SABC; and Mayee, Chair of the Center’s Board of Directors)