Apr. 30, 2001 St. Paul, MN (April 25, 2001)-- Each year plant disease epidemics cost growers billions of dollars and affect both the quantity and quality of food products available to consumers. Traditional disease management techniques are often costly and may be only partially effective. Fortunately scientists are discovering that by following weather patterns they can significantly reduce both the number and severity of certain types of disease outbreaks.
When Charles Main became a plant disease researcher 35 years ago he had no idea his interest would also lead him into the field of meteorology. But for the past five years, he and meteorologist Thomas Keever, at The North American Plant Disease Forecast Center (NAPDFC) located at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, have been tracking the presence and possible future spread of certain types of airborne diseases that threaten growers’ crops.
Main and his colleagues, Jerry Davis and Gerald Holmes, have focused their work on two common fungal diseases: tobacco blue mold and cucurbit downy mildew. The impact of these two diseases can become significant in years when conditions favor their development. States Main, “Fungal plant diseases are very weather sensitive. In cool, wet, overcast weather they can develop rapidly and spread easily by releasing thousands of spores into the air. The spores are then carried by wind currents and eventually settle on healthy plants, infecting them as well.”
When an outbreak of either one of these diseases is reported, Main and his colleagues mark the site of the infection on the NAPDFC’s website map. After careful analysis of the weather conditions at the site of the outbreak and in the surrounding areas, the meteorologist at the Center posts a disease forecast on the Center’s Internet site that includes the likelihood of disease development and possible areas of new outbreaks. Growers who routinely monitor the website are then able to take the necessary measures to protect their crops from infection.
“Because we warn them ahead of time, before their crops become infected, growers end up having to use far fewer chemicals and have significantly less crop loss,” states Main. “There are other plant diseases for which this system would be helpful and I suspect that we’ll be seeing this type of disease forecasting and prevention used more often in the future.”
Using weather forecasts to predict the spread of fungal diseases is the subject of this month’s feature story on the APS website. Visit it at www.apsnet.org for more information. The American Phytopathological Society (APS) is a non-profit, professional scientific organization dedicated to the study and control of plant diseases, with 5,000 members worldwide.
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