Jan 15, 2019
Plant pathology is the study of diseases in plants and importantly in those plants grown to feed the world. Dr. Martin Draper shares his thoughts on how these diseases affect food sustainability historically, now and in the future.
For more information on the important work carried out in the area of plant pathology you can read more at: https://www.npdn.org/. Or read more about Dr. Draper and his work at: https://www.plantpath.k-state.edu/about-us/
Global Food Security and Crop Diseases with Dr. Marty Draper - Plant Pathology
Hello, everybody. Welcome to the Global Food Systems podcast brought to you by Kansas State University's Office of Research Development. I'm Jay Weeks as always, we have my co host, Scott Tanona from the Department of Philosophy. Hey there. Today we have Dr. Marty Draper, Interim Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies, associate director of K State Research and Extension, and department, Head of the Department of Plant Pathology here today to speak with us about the kinds of work that plant pathologists do and why it's important, already has a impressive career past, including he was the director of the plant pest diagnostic lab and seed health testing lab at North Dakota State University, extension plant pathologist from South Dakota State University. He was the national program leader for Plant Pathology and integrated pest management at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture on Washington, DC for 10 years before coming to K State in 2016, to serve as a department head of the plant pathology.
Yeah, so what do I do, I try and make sure that all the wheels stay on the bus for the for the most part, but it's been kind of a long journey to get to where I am from being a city kid in Omaha, Nebraska, urban area, and finding my way into agriculture, where I really felt like I belonged.
So what is plant pathology in your opinion?
Sure. So plant pathology is really about the study of the diseases of plants. So we like to think of ourselves as plant doctors, folks might be surprised to realize that the same organisms that cause diseases in animals and humans can cause diseases in plants, not the same specific organisms, but bacteria, fungi, viruses, there are each of those, each of those groups of organisms has pathogens that can attack various plants. And probably the best example that people are familiar with of a plant disease crisis was the Irish potato famine. And now granted, that was more than just the disease because there was politics that came into play. But I think when we're looking at food systems, politics and policy, are also drivers in how society responds to whatever that crisis is biologically.
Sure. Yeah. I mean, I think the politics definitely was gonna play a huge role in a lot of this. For those of the listeners who aren't too familiar with the Irish Potato Famine, what exactly happened.
So this was about 1845 to 1847. During that period of time, the population of Ireland decreased by about half due to Immigrations and, and deaths from hunger. To this point, the population of Ireland has not rebounded to where it was in 1845. So it wasn't the cause that but the let's do the biology first. Sure. So there's a fungus like organism called Phytophthora infestans. that's native to South America. And that's where potato is native to. So potato had found its way to Europe. And eventually the pathogen found its way to Europe, on potatoes, it's an obligate organism that you really have to have in the potato itself to survive. Ireland has just about the ideal environment for this disease to develop. And when you think about where potato late blight occurs in South America and Central America, it's really in the highlands, where potato was, is, or the centers of origin are of potato in Peru and Bolivia, and into the highlands of southern Mexico. So it was just a very favorable situation than the practices that that particularly the serfs of the time were carrying out, they would just pile potatoes and it was a cheap source of food. A man might live on eight pounds of potatoes a day. If they were rotting, they didn't get thrown away, they might just get tossed into a pile. And when those rotting potatoes are in a pile, they sporulate the spores blow out, in fact more. And clearly it was a crisis. You know, most of those peasant population didn't have really even much for sources of protein. So they might have, they might have one pig or one cow, and those were kind of treats and you didn't so you, you wanted to raise that cow until you could optimize it. And you'd sell part of it and you'd save part of it as much as you could. So I want to ask about the pathology point of view sort of from the work that you do and the work that a plant pathologists would do. You said sort of the doctors So you would you be paying attention mostly to what's going on in the potato and the organism? Or, you know, how much do you think about the systems of how potatoes are treated and stored and kept? And that kind of thing? Well, the answer, that's really all of the above. So, as a, as a pathologist, you know, far too often we see things. At the end, we wind up being asked to do kind of the post mortem on it, but we would much rather be there forecasting when the risk is occurring, and helping people address the problem before it becomes an economic issue. When you look closer back to 1845, those were really that was the infancy of plant pathology, it was through that disease that we actually understood the nature of infectious disease, so we can talk about what Pasteur did. But it was really Anton de berry that first proved the germ theory of disease, and it was on plants, right. So this is important for everybody to get a perspective here. It was not that long ago, right, that we understand infectious disease are absolutely correct.
So if the late blight that caused the Irish potato famine occurred in Peru, where it was originated, why weren't they having such major issues there like they had in Ireland? Well, they did.
I mean, there were instances of failed crops there as well. But there also is much more diversity. And so, you're dealing with species of potato instead of varieties of one species of potato. And so we had a very narrow genetic base in Europe. But it's very interesting when you're in when you're in South America, and looking at the things that they call potato. They're purple, and they're red, and the flesh is different colors. And the skins are different colors, and they're modeled and they're tiny, and they're big, and they're Knobby, and they're smooth, and it's every possible variation that you can think of on those tubers. And the other thing about the indigenous populations in South America is they became very, very adapted to whatever was happening to the potato. So there's another disease called soft rot, that we would ordinarily throw the potato wafer that soft rot, they turned it into Jr. Just a preserved form of potato. Sort of, it's not pleasant to eat, as far as I'm concerned is like pickled there. No, it's a little bit like chalk. As far as I'm concerned. It's kind of it's kind of like it's kind of like a freeze dried potato,
And acquired taste. Yeah.
So is that helped with storage then? Or maybe? So once? Once it's gone through that process? What's left is pretty stable. So could you say something more about the lack of genetic variation, sort of how important that is to basically now controlling for problems like this, I think every instance that we have looked at through history where there's been a major, a major disease outbreak, it's been because of narrow genetic base. And so when we think about looking at our current crop production practices, where you have fields and fields and fields that are very similar, there is a vulnerability there. And last weekend know what the genetic properties the traits are in those crops. So another example was in the early 1970s, there was a disease called northern corn leaf blight. And the susceptibility was carried along because of a male sterile gene. And we sat we saw northern corn leaf blight from the Florida Panhandle, moving all the way up into the Midwest. And where I grew up in Iowa, there were substantial losses. So so is the the benefit of diversity, mostly just that, hey, look, if you have a wider diversity of plants, fewer of them are going to be hit with this particular disease, or is it also that because fewer of them are being hit in a particular area, you're going to see less spreading? Yes, it's both of those things. So it's, it's both the susceptibility and the inoculum potential, what we call the inoculum potential, how many spores are being produced on susceptible plants. And in fact, we have a situation that's developing right now in western Kansas, where we have a concern of an expanding vulnerability in our wheat crop, where we have susceptibility to wheat stem rust, which is traditionally been one of the most damaging diseases worldwide, where we have about 30% of the acreage in the western western portion of Kansas that is susceptible to the currently prevalent race of, of stem rust, the stemless bat pathogen, the fungus that causes it, and so you've got a narrow genetic base on the pathogen side, and you've got a narrow genetic base on the host side. We're just waiting for the environment to come together in order to have a crisis situation develop. So there's the phrase monoculture, right that people use for this for convenience, right, that it makes sense to plant a bunch of the same variety right? You know, how I mean it, maybe you could speak to a little bit sort of what the advantages of that are. And then you're talking about from the pathology side of diseases, what the disadvantages are and sort of I'm interested maybe on your perspective of like how we got here. Right, and whether, you know whether we're just ready for a change now, or we should have been doing something differently all along? Well, I think, you know, first of all, the thing to bear in mind is that the most cost effective and efficient way of managing disease is through host resistance. So where are we know that we have resistance, and we can bring it into a crop? We want that to be there. And we want it to be effective against the prevalent, prevalent genetics and the pathogen that's out there. Some pathogens are, more general in their attack of the crop than others. How did we get there? Well, I mean, it's really good to have a crop that matures at the same time matures evenly, the quality is uniform. And you can expect what you're going to get out of the field. Markets drive some fat, we want a certain protein content we want, we don't want sprouting various various traits and qualities that are going to come into play that are going to influence what a producer is going to want to plant because they want to be able to be sure that they're going to get a profit out of the deal. One of the things that when you say, hey, look, one of the one of the issues here is with how the lack of diversity that we have right sort of there that a crop, like here in Kansas, sort of we've got a pretty narrow genetic range, right, sort of in where we're open to potential problems, right, sort of, can imagine resistance back to this right sort of that it sounds like you're saying, we've been doing something wrong, right? Or that we've got right, that your practice should have been different, that starts to get us a little bit into the culture and politics. Right, right. And I'd rather you tell me how to fix this. And let me keep on doing this thing, then tell me I have to do something totally different. We'd lots of concerns, drive decisions, right? So I have one problem, I'm going to address that problem that may expose me to another problem. Maybe I don't expect that I'm going to see that problem I have made, I've made a risk decision. And I'm going to say that I am less, less averse to that risk than I am to this other risk. And we make decisions like that every day, even when we cross the street or so some of those things are just paying attention to them. Right? So Right. I mean, sometimes those things are really just part of our normal course of the day and when we pay more attention to the decision, we maybe have a better opportunity to be responsive to it and be preventative. But you know, genetics is not the only way that you can address a problem. So there may be tillage practices, cultural practices that you bring into play we may use, we may use chemical fungicides to help manage as a stopgap. Sometimes we'll use those as a preventative, sometimes we'll use those as a rescue treatment, they're never going to work as well as a rescue as they are in a preventative situation. But they become economic decisions, too. So when you look at starting the season with a crop and you've got a budget for that crop, I have not factored in this additional cost, it's hard to then plug it in at the end. I have factored that it in I don't need to use it. I'm not going to use it I just increased my profit margin. So planning and being comprehensive in that planning is really important. How much is a scientist to you? In from the plant pathology point of view, do you really want to be recommending to people say hey, look, there's trade offs, right? Sort of and you got you do one thing, you take a risk on one side, you do something else? So you're taking a different kind of risk, right? And sort of from one perspective, then from a farmers point of view, it's what they have to decide is what risks are they willing to take, right? And what do they want to do? And how do they want to plan so from from the scientists point of view, you might be just sort of giving them information to help them plan how much you think it's the job then from from like your side to help actually move along a certain kind of policy, a certain kind of policy or practice well, so we do try and guide practices every year. So our Extension specialists are frequently putting out information about we're seeing this disease developing. These are susceptible varieties. This is a response you might take a stop gap. In my previous time as the extension plant pathologist in South Dakota, I was on a weekly scouting tour of the state trying to keep track of where things were at. I was always reading the newsletters from adjacent states to see where their risks were because they were informing me on what I might expect in seven to 10 days. I spent some time in the diagnostic lab in North Dakota. And I would read the newsletters from South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas because I had in the time I was there I could kind of figure out how long it was going to take from a get from more net would get to hear to when I would see it on the next step next state. And then I could come up with a pretty efficient prediction on when I was going to start seeing it in our diagnostic lab.
So What are some of the ways in which it moves from state to state? Is it something we can prevent? Or is it solely based on things like the weather?
Yeah. So it depends on the pathogen that you're talking about. And some of them are wind borne. So when we talk about the rusts, when we talk about late blight, they're both wind borne, but the distance that can travel is dramatically different. So late blight spores are, very light color, they're very susceptible to ultraviolet light. And so they're really viable for maybe a couple of miles on a cloudy day, on a sunny day, they just aren't very viable at all. Rust spores are darkly pigmented, protected, they're melanized protected from UV light, and they can travel a long distance. Later, hundreds of miles across continents sort of scattered.
Yeah, so one of the favorite stories I used, I spent some time working on soybean rust when it was introduced, when it started making its way across the world. And it was in southern Africa. And then all of a sudden, it showed up in South America, it had blown across the Atlantic Ocean. And that's and and so as we were looking at it in Brazil and Argentina and Paraguay trying to understand, okay, what might this thing look like if it makes it to North America? While we were working on it in the roughly 2002 to 2005 range. We're watching it work its way north and we said oh, well, you know, when it gets to the equator, it's going to hit the doldrums, it's not going to be able to find its way across it found its way across there said that we said there's no soybeans there. So there's not really going to be a great threat, we found that it was actually very, very efficient on dry beans and Columbia. And then Hurricane Ivan came and brought it across the Caribbean. And so sometimes these things can move very quickly. And a lot of it has to do with the viability of the pathogen as well as its biology.
Well, some of the effects that we see of climate change with increased storm intensity and things like that, will that have any impact on how quickly these spread?
I think we could see some of these diseases driven by some of the severe storms for sure hurricanes, in particular. What we saw with Hurricane Ivan and soybean rust, the southern corn leaf blight, there were storms that were involved in moving that along you're dealing with prevailing wind patterns. But when you see that there was something that came from Florida, worked its way into Arkansas and then came up into Iowa and Illinois, that is not a prevailing wind pattern. So there are other drivers behind it that are getting it to where it's going. And a lot of it has to do with where the susceptible plant material is to is there increased risk in areas if the temperature is changing, that you know you don't have native plants that are already you know, going to be resistant to the things that might be coming in is that sort of angles and challenge. It is very interesting when you look at the USDA ARS Plant Hardiness map, we have actually seen that those hardiness zones have moved one to two zones to the north already. And we are seeing an association of pests moving along with it. So something that may have only been fit in South Florida is now moving up into Georgia and South Carolina and Alabama. So when we've seen introductions of past and sometimes we don't know why they came here, we don't know how they came here. And sometimes the there's a complexity in the disease cycle. I think about something like Laurel wilt that's affecting Red Bay in the Atlantic coast along Florida and Georgia and up into the Carolinas. You know, people used to look at Red Bay and they'd say, yeah, what is it? It's just a little tree. It's a scrubby tree. Well, it was the predominant understory tree in the coastal areas. When it died out. There was nothing breaking the wind and all of a sudden the big pines were getting blown over okay. But it's a wilt disease that's a lot like Dutch elm disease. And it's vectored by a little teeny tiny beetle. And we don't know if it came in on wood that was imported probably into savanna. Or if it can came in with beetles that were in something. All we know is that Red Bay was really susceptible. And so now that has moved clear up into Maryland. It's moved across the Gulf Coast. And one of the great concerns is that avocado is susceptible. So fortunately the Florida avocado industry is not huge, but those are the low fat avocados. that that are kind of promoted as a healthier avocado, the house avocados it hasn't moved into any areas where those are produced yet but but there is a danger and the folks in California are really concerned about it not only for avocado production but because they also have Laurel species that that grow along the coast and are really important in stabilizing the coastline. So there's food concerns along with these disease epidemics, there's also natural resource concerns. So could you follow up on that sort of what how do you make that distinction natural resource versus the food. So for example, was talking about the stabilization of the shoreline some of these plant species that we don't really think about very much vz worry about like timber and things like this too, are sure timber there are huge issues with diseases in timber, white pine blister rust has minimized the five needle pine industry, particularly around the Great Lakes. Some absolutely intriguing diseases. When I was in North Dakota, we actually had a first report of, white pine blister rust showing up in North Dakota, and it was in the Bismarck area right smack in the middle of the state. And you're thinking, Okay, how did it get here, there aren't trees for miles, that would be 10s of hundreds of miles that would have been susceptible. I don't know how it blew in one tree, 30-40 year old tree. The very interesting thing was, that's kind of a midpoint between two genetic populations. So we were really concerned that if we saw it show up there what it would actually be genetically and so we spent quite a bit of time after that tracking to determine whether or not we were going to see anything more. Not much Eastern White Pine there, but a lot of limber pine. And so limber pine is another five needle pine that's susceptible to the disease.
So when you come across something like that, what's the course of action? Is there a generic route that you take? You've identified something and then there's steps to take in place to try to minimize its impact? Or what do you do.
So it really depends on what the biology of the disease is. So in the case of white pine blister rust, just used, eradication is the first thing we're going to do, we're going to just, we're just going to get rid of it. And then we'll monitor and make sure that it's been isolated. And in fact, that worked beautifully there. Had no problems after that never saw anything more, in the case of an introduced a new introduced pathogen. So let's talk about soybean rust, USDA APHIS, the animal Plant Health Inspection Service, the plant protection and quarantine division of that agency is responsible for dealing with new plant introduction or new pathogen introductions, new pest introductions. The first thing they thought was, we're gonna eradicate this. And so they started a delimiting survey from where the first location was found in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And they found that it was in, I believe, five states. And it was blowing all over the place. And they finally said, Okay, we're moving to management. Unfortunately, we knew how to manage the disease. We sometimes we don't but in that particular case we had, we'd been preparing. We knew what the effective fungicides were, we knew how to try and stay ahead of it. And this is a case where it had to have something to survive on through the winter, and it was only going to survive on the Gulf Coast on kudzu. And if the kudzu froze back in a winter, you knocked the population way down. And you really delayed when the epidemics were happening in the spring. But if it was a mild winter, we saw a couple of years where we're soybean rust actually made its way up into Iowa by August. And so those were years when there was the potential for losses. But we were also watching for it very carefully. And producers got good warning to be able to go and spray fungicides if they felt that that was a necessary thing for them to do. So you've made the comparison of plant pathology to medicine to human medicine before right and most of the time anyway, we're lucky enough not have to worry about sort of major diseases coming in sweeping in sort of wiping off, you know, a good chunk of the population like the like the potato blight did right to the potatoes, right? Of course epidemiologists sort of do worry about the tracking of disease and there are some of them that you can be really worried about. And in other parts of the world sort of it's more of a concern right corollary I would draw with with the late light situation in Ireland would be the Spanish flu and 1918. Right. So like, what are the big like, what are the differences you see between sort of the plant pathologist job right, and somebody working to control infectious disease in humans? Well, I think that I think the biggest difference is people bulls value of what the damages mean, I'm much more concerned that my family got sick than a tree in the front yard got stuck there. And so the response tends to be much slower. When you're dealing with something on a plant. I think that people that are looking at those plants for their livelihood may respond differently. But when you're looking at a, at an elementary and American elm tree in your front yard that's wilting, you may not have the same concern about it, although just like your flu might spread from you to your neighbor to your in your other family members, that tree is a source of the disease to all the other trees around it. It was when I worked in diagnostic labs over the years, we often work with the city to do confirming tests for the presence of the pathogen. And the treatment is to eradicate to remove a tree that is beginning to show symptoms, you can use fungicides to treat ahead of infection and use it as a prophylactic or preventative treatment. So that you don't wind up losing that tree. But once it's infected, it's a losing battle to try and use fungicides. So I would do the testing confirm the pathogen and people would go out and a city would go out or whoever and remove the tree. But quite often we would get samples in that were just Stone Cold graveyard dead. And I don't know, it just died overnight. No, you this has been dead for a while. And so, you know, some of these things that are in our landscape, or just a little bit out of sight out are paying attention to we don't see them the same way until we see a pile of leaves in the yard or something like that.
Is there something we can do as scientists to impress upon people how important it is to pay more attention to these things, there is just too many other competing interests.
I think it comes down to human values. And what I value and what you value are probably different. And what we see in the world around us are probably different. And it's where we find our quality of life. So I don't know that there's a way we can address that's going to work for everybody. I think the thing that we do try and do is raise awareness. And so there's lots of campaigns that go out there, whether it's about diseases that are new, or insect pests that are new. So even right here on campus, we've got emerald ash borer signs around, and we've got some trees that are being used as trap trees. And it's pretty much the same thing. You just try and elevate the awareness.
So with the strap trees, can you talk a little bit about like what's going on there? People see those, but they're what they're doing.
I am a plant pathologist not sure
I didn't know if you had any experience in that or not. So what are the biggest plant pathogens that we're worried about today in the United States that if they get here will, will cause the biggest trouble.
So I think probably I'll use wheat as an example since we're here in Kansas. But there are two diseases that we are very concerned about. I've talked about wheat stem rust, there is a new variation, a new variant, a genetic variant in Africa that showed up in 1999. In Uganda, and it's referred to as, as Eugene 99, wheat stem rust. Well, there's a whole family of genetics that goes around along with that now and, and as plant pathologists and geneticists, we look at it more generally as the T series of, of, of wheat stem rust variants. And so we have a classification scheme that we use, that's letter based. And if the code comes out and it's got a tea at the start, we have a problem because we've got some, the resistance that we have in our wheat varieties is not as appropriate to that series of the pathogen as it is to some others. The other one is a disease called wheat blast that developed in Brazil, and has moved through central South America. We actually have a very active wheat blast research program here in the plant pathology department at K State. And recently, that pathogen found its way into Bangladesh, and it got there probably on seed. The pathogen will infect seed, it will grow off the seed it will lead to infections. But it wasn't actually seed that was in it. That was important. It was probably grain that was planted a seed. So it was probably low quality seed but there were a few years where there was a seed shortage in Bangladesh and I think that there was an effort to get something that could be planted from wherever they could get it. And so that has become established. The pictures of producers burning fields is a striking scene. But there's a lot of concern that disease is now going to work its way up into India, and up into the wheat production areas in the north of India. So you've got that happening from the south, now it coming toward India, to the west, you have Ug 99, that's moved out of Africa, from Uganda, to Kenya, into Afghanistan, but not or into Iran, but not into Pakistan yet. And so we've got these two threats coming. And so when you're thinking about global food security and the importance of wheat as one of the top four food crops in the world, that's a breadbasket in northern India. And that's really a concern. So are we away from the days where we could see something as bad as the potato blight? Like the fact that famine level kind of things? Are our systems, you know, diverse enough as our science good enough? Now to prevent that kind of disaster? Could we hit something like that? We think we could. And it depends on the again, depends on the convergence of politics with famine. But I think depending on where you are in the world, there are threats that could cause that Prop, that kind of problem of that magnitude, I would be concerned in Southeast Asia with some of the problems that can hit rice. I would be concerned in north India, if some of these things come to pass on wheat. Global trade can potentially soften some of that, but politics can get in the way. So it's possible. I think that I think there are fewer excuses for it. But I think it's still possible. So you had brought up the politics as contributing to the famine back in Ireland in the 19th century? Could you say something else? I mean, like, what just simply like, what, what were the factors there that made it worse. So Robert Peel was the prime minister at the time, and there were food shipments that were sent to Ireland that he didn't allow to come to shore, did not allow to, to come to port. So there were shiploads of corn, that were sitting off the coast of Ireland that were not allowed to come in abused for relief. They put up soup kitchens, essentially, where they were essentially making cornmeal mush and distributing that, but there was a means test, you could only get a bowl of food if you could walk to the area kitchen. So if you had family members that were very ill and couldn't walk you you had to come back and either share yours with them, or they didn't get any. So there were some it was a rare, very harsh time. So response to the problems that did not actually help address right for the people in sir for political reasons. And it do I remember something about a… but so there are factors that also kicked a lot of the farmers off of the land there too. Right. So I don't remember what it was. It was it was subdivision of land. So I mean, you were dealing with very small parcels of land that were trying to support people while those people were working for the big landowner. I would just say that the Irish people have endured some tremendous, some tremendous oppression over the years. And you know, the breakdown of the feudal society in Ireland was a good thing. So one of the biggest political issues then you'd be worried about for global food systems from the plant pathology point of view, sort of, you know, the kinds of things that I imagine are, right, yeah. You can see a risk coming a big, you know, danger or sort of something that's like actually already happening and sort of the political systems not responding right, or responding in ways that are detrimental. So Well, I think Import Export issues are a real concern. And depending upon what the quarantines might be in a country and the way that those imports might be regulated, could be a concern. And we're seeing pests moving around with trade. And so how we respond to them and how we erect our quarantine requirements can have a big impact on that and then there's the economic side of it too. I mean, if somebody is involved in that trade on both ends, so you like aren't shoes. I like on shoes. Oh, enjoy it now. Yeah, because the industry is in trouble. Why? So I would guess that may be within five years there's not going to be an orange juice industry in Florida. Wow. That's crazy. So we've been saying this for 15 years, five years from now but it really is it really is never come true. This is the problem. The wheels are falling off the machine now and the part of the part of the situation is as you wind up killing groves and and and there's more space between groves, then the slows down the epidemic slows down but there's a disease called citrus greening or one Long Bang as the Chinese name for it, it came from Asia, it's spread by the Asian citrus psyllid. This is a very difficult to detect pathogen, it was only in the last 15 years that it's actually been identified. They knew the salud was involved with it, but finally came up with technology that would allow them to identify it molecularly can't be grown in culture just only exists in the plant or in the insect. Is that how common Yeah, they can't can't grow in culture? It's not very common. Okay. There's a handful. Right? Yeah, there's a handful of organisms that we've known about for years that we knew that was the case, but we really didn't know exactly what they were. So and then I'll finish the story on oranges first here, but so it when it came into the into Florida, we it was, generally what happens is the insect comes in, we find the insect and it takes three to five years to recognize that the diseases there, because it takes that long for the symptoms to build up in the tree, the level of infection to build up to the point where it expresses symptoms. And then it's kind of funny, because the trees start looking a little bit yellow. And so there were people in Florida that said, all we just need to fertilize the trees will fertilize them more, which just mask the symptoms, the disease was still there, the pathogen was still present, and it could still be moved around. What you really need to do is remove the tree, well, nobody wanted to give up their dooryard, orange tree, or whatever citrus it was. And so it really moved across the state very rapidly. And as orange groves became unproductive, and producers went out of business, they were simply abandoned. And they remained there as a source of the pathogen to move to other areas. It's made its way into Texas, it's made its way the psyllid is in California. But I don't know that the pathogen has been identified there yet. So it's working its way across the country. There are three different strains, there's a Asian strain, a South American strain and an African strain. We're only dealing with the Asian strain in the US right now.
Is there anything that seems to be able to stop it or any promise
Oh, there's a lot of very new technologies that are being tested. But to this point, we really don't have a good approach. We want to identify it early, and then try and manage the psyllid if it comes into new areas. So it is a weird low insect.
What, what are some of those new technologies, so they're looking at using RNA interference RNA, and they're looking at a heat treatment in the roots. Very strange mechanisms that they're running across these groves, warming the soil and and during the dormant period for the tree and the non productive time for the tree. Like how hot? I couldn't tell you, for sure. I have seen the research proposals, but I haven't seen the data off of them. So there's, there's things that are happening all the time. And a lot of these things occur because we introduce a pathogen out of a part of the world where it's in stasis with its host into a part of the world where there's a new host genetics that it's interacting with, and everything is susceptible.
So are there opportunities for some sort of biotechnology, biotechnology, way of writing resistance to the new to orange trees, so they aren't impacted by this? Or like the devil? It was a papaya, right? It was just an example of being able to protect against that kind of stuff.
No, papaya is a great story. But I'll get back to that later. In the end. The answer on the orange side is I don't know. It's a different kind of organism to be dealing with libera bacteria is a fastidious bacterium. And so it's not behaving the same way as a virus would be behaving in the plant such as we're dealing with, with a buyer. For so many of us we can be really disconnected from our food at least and so I'm not totally part time gardener, I got a few plants, right and sort of, you know, I see something wrong with a tomato plants, I have no idea what to do, right? Sort of because it's not my thing, right? But at least I've got that little bit of connection, right. So but for so much of the rest of my food. I get to not even worry about how it's produced. Right. So how many of these how many? How much of my food should I be worried about right? Sort of I should be worried about orange juice. Should I be worried about bananas and coffee and all the other good stuff that I like, you shouldn't be worried you should be concerned. Okay. I think that we have answers, we have management, we could lose some of the crops that we really care about, or they may become expensive. So we could be looking at situations where if we're going to have oranges, we're going to be importing oranges, that, frankly, this citrus greening is present in majority of the production areas around the world. So I'm not entirely sure how we're going to get through to get out of that at all. But there is work to come up with resistance, we'll eventually get there, but there will be a lag and it will require reestablishment of the industry. So if you can look at something like the virus resistance that you get with papaya, that's, that was really, that was really cool, what happened there, so So basically, you can engineer the gene that that produces the coat protein of the virus into the plant and coat protein will, an expression of the coat protein in the plant will create a resistance to the virus. So it's really a strange, strange little thing. And they usually use a reverse copy of the coke protein in the transformation, but it gets into the GMO issue. And so depending upon where you are in the world and who your market is, it may or may not be an acceptable solution to that to consumer.
But virtually all papaya is available now do our genetically modified.
You know, I thought that was true. But that's not entirely true. There are parts of the world where the technology has been rejected.
Would it be accurate to say that the solution is sort of an inherent vaccine type way of looking at it?
That's a very good way of looking at it. Yeah, it is. Not exactly like an immune system. But it is a defense mechanism.
Interesting. What's fascinating. Um, so are there any like major technological advancements? Do you see like way off in the future for plant pathology? And what might those kinds of things look like? If you were to speculate? Where do you see plant pathology going?
Since when I give you the long pause, while I think, well, there's just so many advances in machine learning and that sort of stuff. Do you see any applications for that, and people talking about that for Plant Pathology application.
You know, there's some really cool things that have been talked about with indicator plants, for example, where you might have plants in the field that if they're infected by some organism, they change color, where they send off some kind of signature that you can pick up with, with your drone that's monitoring the crop. So I think I think one of the things that's exciting down the road is in the monitoring and forecasting realm, and how we're going to be able to bring in this huge body of weather data. And combine that with some monitoring and tracking to determine where our risks are, and how we should respond. If we can, if we can get to the point where we can say, Oh, I'm subscribing to this service, I can plug in the variety that I'm growing, I can tie into the weather system, I can use this monitoring system that's out there. And maybe someday that's even satellite based. If we can figure out the signatures, the biggest problem with that kind of technology is there's too many things that look alike, you're detecting stress, you don't necessarily know what the source of the stress is, that's where the indicator plants are pretty cool. But you can get a recommendation then back based on what the pathogen is, what the environment is, and what your susceptibility is in your variety. So it's not just that you've got a good environment, and you've got wheat stem rust blowing, and it's that you've got those two things, plus you, you've planted a variety that's going to be susceptible to the version variant of the stem rust that's out there. So you can really optimize any treatment you might put on the field, using the understanding of the disease not to just be coming in at the end as the pathologist but to fix things ahead of time. Right. Getting into prevention side, rather than coming in as the pathologist sort of after the fact saying what went wrong? We would much rather be on the prevented so that I bet the plants would rather you be there too. Yeah. And the hungry people tend to people, right, yeah.
So is that going to take some sort of collaboration both between the private sector and universities to get things like this up and off the ground? I think sometimes that, you know, the integration between the private sector and universities gets a bad rap, but it's essential for progress in these areas. Right.
We think I think the invention from the research side and then entrepreneurialism to get it launched into some kind of package that people can use is critical. Too often. We pursue research at a university from an academic standpoint, and it doesn't always get translated to in a way that can actually benefit society. Sometimes we get a lag. And scientists can get very excited about what they're finding. But, and depending on where we are in that research spectrum from, from basic to foundational to apply to, to kind of a demonstration and then implementation. We've got to find where our invention fits and make sure it continues to move down the spectrum and get to the point where it actually is doing something for us. When we're way up here on the basic research end, and you're looking at some metabolic process, you have to have the right mindset to figure out how that actually influences the next step down the research spectrum. And sometimes, it takes a while to figure out how you turn that on in that next system, so that it actually benefits so that it produces the right compounds in the plant that enhances the health of the individual that eats it, or that reduces the disease that you're getting or, or repels an insect past or whatever. So that makes me think of the following question. So you've been talking about extension at a couple of points and talking about plant pathology is actually going out, seeing what's happening on the ground, right. But then you also talked about basic research, sort of how much of what gets done in plant pathology is the kind of basic research where so the term means you're sitting, not thinking immediately of applications, you're not going out and sort of engaging an extension, you're not going out and helping the farmers right now, you're just trying to understand something, right. So how much apply pathology is on that end of the spectrum? And how much is, you know, really applied to how, you know, maybe here at K State and in general, right, in terms of the field? Well, I would say that here at K State, our, program is fairly balanced, we have applied, we have applied research, we have extension, we also have some pretty basic research that's largely largely in the genetic and genomic realm. phenol omics looking at the expression of these genetics, we also have some work that's done on the epidemiology, understanding the interaction of the pathogen in the environment, and the host, and how those pathogens might move. So it's all those things, I mean, you can't, you can spend all your time on the producer and the user end. But when you do that, you're in a corner. Because you've got no new tools coming. So you have to have that research feeding your next step, your next phase of how you're going to address any problem. Are there big disagreements in terms of how to strike that balance? In terms of how much? You know, if he looked overall, how much basic research? Do we need to be inoculating our food systems down the line? versus how much do we need to be worrying more right now about current problems? And I think that where you see that, in large part is in the funding environment. So funding drives a lot of what research has done, right? Not everybody thinks about this, if you're not a scientist, if you're just sort of on the consuming end of the science, right? How much actually goes on on the funding side. And so when you get to the funding side, what were the drivers that made the decisions on where the money was going to go to fund the next, the next research? That's always been a challenge. So I spent 10 years in Washington, DC, working for a funding agency, and how that how those decisions were influenced on how we were going to balance that money was always a challenge, because the perspective we might have on an on an issue might be very different than what a producer group a commodity group might have. And their concern may be quite valid. And we'd have to try and figure out a way to balance their need versus our perceived need of the entire food system.
So are we channeling money toward specialty crops or we channeling money toward conventional row crop field crop? And then some of that was driven by Congress, they would help us make that decision by where they said the money had to go. Sure. So you know, they would create a new program that was in the time I was there, this specialty crop research initiative, which wound up being one of the biggest grant programs that we had and it had specific prescription on where the money was going to go, how we could use the money So, we had other programs that were a little that we had more influence over, some were applied some more basic. And when the agricultural food and research initiative was created in the 2008 Farm Bill, they actually said, you have to have a balance between basic research and applied research, a certain percentage of the money has to go toward applied research. And I think it started out at 40%. So that had that really caused the funding agency to look differently at how they wrote requests for application, how they wrote grant programs, and how they defined applied versus basic. Sure. Are there any big eye openers? The time you spent in the funding side of things, things that you just did not expect to see? Well, you never know what surprise is gonna come to you from Congress. You know, it's funny, I think federal workers get bashed a lot, but federal workers carry the mail for Congress. Congress makes the decision. Federal Civil civil service workers make it work. And they don't always get all the information they need to make it work the best way. Again, the 2008 Farm Bill, I was managing a program that provided funds to every state to do integrated pest management and make sure that there was a presence of integrated pest management to producers at the extension level. We went into the night that the the final night of conference committee on the farm bill, and we thought we knew where everything was, and the next day when it was passed, one word was changed from shall be distributed to shall be competed. And this bill was passed in June into the fiscal year is the end of September. And now all of a sudden, I had a $9 million program that I had to figure out how to get competed and distributed. So those are the thing. And, you know, I don't think that I don't think that Congress thought far ahead to recognize the what we're gonna be right and the operational problems with that.
So what are some of the operational problems? I mean, it to an academic who deals with grants and things like that, that might make sense and why that's a problem. But what problems does that cause?
So Congress authorizes grant programs, they appropriate money to go along with those grant programs, the agencies determine what the criteria are, post an RFA, and then it goes through an approval process. And in the two administrations that I worked for, the approval process was different in both of them, I would say in, in both the Bush administration and the Obama administration's there were things that were really good they did that made it easy for the agency to do some of the things that they had to do. And there were things that they both did that were made it harder. And so depending upon who the appointees, the political appointees are that you're working for, that could determine how much oversight they had over what was going to be in an RFA how long it was going to take them to approve it. And at one point in time, the RFAs passed through our agency, they went to the secretary, they went to the Office of Management and Budget, oh, come on, we got to get this money out the door and in the process, you're burning up so much time, then you're you're left with only a short time to get the actual applications and to get them reviewed. And to get the money awarded. It's a pretty intensive process. Right? Yeah, it can be very tedious. What are the major concern? Do you have any major concerns about funding now sort of the either the process or the levels or what people are focusing on at the national level? Well, I would say I have all those concerns. There's not enough money for Food, Agricultural Research. There are gaps in the research funding that make it difficult to accomplish some of the things that we really need to accomplish. And when I talk about the food and ag research spectrum, I'm really talking about everything from human nutrition, to some of the basic research that's going to feed our applied research. There have been some good things that have happened, but in the process, as you know, so as you start looking at more applied research and more extension being added into the program, you wind up diluting some of the other end of the research spectrum. And so there are fewer new ideas that are being fed into that end of the spectrum. But yeah, so I think the challenges are the amount of money and the gaps that we have in the kinds of research that are being supported. What are the major things that you would like the average person in the United States to know more about about food systems or from particular your point of view the what goes on on the disease side plants and food production? Well, I would extend it even beyond that, I would say first of all, universe universities do a lot of very valuable research to make sure that we will have a reliable supply of food. I think producers implement some of that information, sometimes not even knowing the source, the origination because it gets picked up by private companies and implemented in their products. Food Policy over the years has been one of the things that has actually changed the standard of living in the United States and you go back to, I think, was the Nixon administration and Earl Butz as the secretary of agriculture that basically said, we're going to have an inexpensive food policy that requires there to be for some government supports for food, which some people don't like. But we have the lowest cost of food in the world, in this country. Earl Butz used to talk about it as I think the 7% solution that you would only have to spend 7% of your income on food. Well, I think that varies depending upon what your income is. And when you're very poor, that might still be a very high number, but it's a lower number in the United States than it is in Egypt, or in Gabon, or in Paraguay, right. This is, this is really important in terms of what resources you have available, right? It's not just that you don't have to spend all your time growing your food, but it's right, so then you have the time available to do other things, right. But it's pretty remarkable when you think about it, sort of you know, so this is a major driver of living life, right? You need food, right? You're not gonna make it right, if you don't have food and sort of we get it really cheap and really easy. And we get concerned about the cost of housing. Yeah. But even when food is high, dude is pretty cheap in the US compared to other parts of the world.
I mean, it doesn't feel like that. I know, for a lot of people and for sure, I feel lower income. It doesn't feel that way. Right. But it's an interesting perspective to have.
There are students out there that are they're interested in this sort of thing and want to get involved in plant path. What would you suggest as a career path for them?
Plant Pathology at Kansas State is a graduate program. But we take students from a genetics background, from an agronomy background from a horticulture background, not very often that we have them come out of the social sciences, they wind up having some background that they wind up having to catch up on. But there are a lot of different perspectives on plant pathology. Two, we have a couple of students right now that are really taking an end use consumer extension approach in their research working on Master's degrees. We have a very extensive genetics program in our department, and anybody that has questions, I'd be happy to chat with them, or we have a graduate program director Megan Kennelly, that would could also visit with them about where they might fit. Application time period is in the spring. But we'd love to hear from people anytime of the year that they think they might be interested in and pursuing a higher education with us.
Great and they should look to your website for that the website is the place to go.
And we'll link to that in the show notes. Thank you again, Marty for me. Appreciate it. Thanks so much. See you all soon.