TrendPurdue launches Center for Crop Biosecurity

Published 3 March 2006

As worries about agroterrorism and food supply safety grow, Purdue University has created a center which would help in the national effort to protect the country’s food supply against foreign plant, pests, and pathogens that might be introduced through natural means or terrorism. “We lack a lot of critical information necessary to protect against agents that could damage our crops and agricultural system,” said Ray Martyn, who recently stepped down as head of Purdue’s Department of Botany and Plant Pathology to take the leadership of the newly created Center for Crop Biosecurity on the West Lafayette, Indiana campus. “We need a coordinated effort to deal with pathogens and pests that could harm our crops.”

The existing Purdue University Plant & Pest Diagnostic Laboratory, which is part of the new center, already is part of the National Plant Diagnostic Network. In addition, Purdue, along with other research organizations and the federal government, have discussions under way about establishing a national plant biosecurity center within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). “Currently there is no single place where people can go to get information on invasive plant pests and plant pathogens in case of a national emergency,” Martyn said. “We don’t have a national strategy, although President Bush signed a directive in January 2004 mandating establishment of a national policy to protect our agriculture and food supply from terrorist attacks.”

The invasion of a country by potentially destructive foreign or exotic species is not something from the past. On the contrary, as the pace of globalization accelerates, such invasions are the inevitable byproducts of global trade. A recent example is the soybean rust-causing pathogen Phakospora pachyrhizi, which Hurricane Ivan brought to the United States in late 2004. Soybean rust has not caused major problems in the United States, but the pathogen’s progression in Asia and South America is evidence of its potential to create a crisis. Authorities estimate that soybean rust could cause U.S. economic losses as high as $2 billion annually, with yield dropping as much as 10 percent. An invasion of the pathogen could raise production costs an average of $25 per acre, according to USDA Economic Research Service experts.

The arrival of soybean rust is an example not only of how foreign species or pathogen invasions are very much with us today — it also exemplifies another reality: Soybean rust arrived in the United States without any warning, so only a few U.S. scientists had the expertise to study the disease, which had to be done in quarantined greenhouses. Moreover, none of the fungicides for controlling soybean rust were approved in the United States in 2004.

The purpose of Purdue’s new center is to identify plants and pathogens that could cause damage to U.S. crops, to find pathways through which pathogens could invade, and to determine how to prevent their introduction. The center will work with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and DHS in an effort to make certain Purdue’s center is at the security level needed to study quarantined plants and diseases.

Martyn says that because so many exotic plant pests and pathogens enter the United States by accident, the center’s scientists must study more than just those that pose terror threats. “It doesn’t matter how they get here; once they’re here, we have to deal with them,” he said. “We don’t want to have tunnel vision and only be concerned about threatening agents. We need to anticipate and prepare for the arrival of many pathogens.”

-read more in this news release