Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Future of Pest Control Lies Within (the Pest)

Credit: Vera Kuttelvaserova/Adobe

Credit: Vera Kuttelvaserova/Adobe

By Alexandre Fournier-Level

Gene drives could improve global food security by turning pest biology against itself.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Between 1845 and 1847, the potato blight (Phytophtora infestans) ravaged Ireland, where potato was the staple crop, causing the death of more than a million people and forcing the emigration of another two million. The Great Famine added another hallmark to the long list of plagues humanity has faced, along with the plagues of Egypt in the Bible or locust plagues during the Yuan and Ming dynasties.

The Green Revolution over the first half of the 20th century owed itself to the widespread application of chemistry in agriculture. It can be seen as the milestone after which we ceased to fear agricultural diseases as life-threatening plagues. But for how long will this remain so?

Two recent and dramatic events that went relatively unnoticed are a reminder that food security is fragile and that we are more vulnerable to disease and pest outbreaks than we probably think. In 2007 Ug99, an extremely virulent strain of black stem rust (Puccinia graminicola), started infesting East African wheat fields and ultimately extended to the Middle East. In 2016, a wheat blast caused by the fungi Magnaporthe oryzae originating from South America spread to Bangladesh, somehow jumping from rice to wheat.

The extreme vulnerability of modern agriculture stems from several factors, including the narrow gene pool of the crop (which was already the main vulnerability during...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.