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Growing agricultural production demands and new disease threats will necessitate a global surveillance system for crop diseases, according to a new article in the journal Science.

But one of the co-authors from the University of Florida, Karen Garrett, a plant pathology professor in the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, notes that the university has built a similar system on a smaller scale throughout the state of Florida.

“If you look at the different components the article proposes for the global system, UF has many of those networks in place,” said Garrett, who was invited to be part of the global team of experts who convened in Italy in 2018 and then developed the article. “There are a lot of lessons learned from setting up systems in Florida and other parts of the United States that are useful for figuring out how to do things in other parts of the world, too.”

Global proposition

Mónica Carvajal Yepes of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture was lead author of the article, published June 28, and, in addition to Garrett, the article also features the expertise of others in fields such as economics, genetics, geography and entomology. It proposes a global surveillance system consisting of regional hubs among five interconnected global networks: a diagnostic laboratory network, a risk assessment network, a data management network, an operational management network and a communications network.

Garrett points to UF scientists working in diagnostics across the state, such as Carrie Harmon in Gainesville and Romina Gazis in Homestead, as an example of how the diagnostic network can function.

This work is furthered through scientists who integrate data and assess risk of disease spread, identifying key locations for sampling and disease management, which is Garrett’s area of expertise.

The work even extends into coordination with other organizations like the U.S. National Plant Diagnostic Network and the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. She also says the UF/IFAS Extension offices provide a key communications network, creating a direct link to the state’s farmers.

Hungry planet

The article considers an estimated need for a 70% increase in global agricultural production to accommodate anticipated population growth and demand for food. It also references high yield losses among some of the most commonly consumed crops due to pests and diseases.

“The article talks about a global plan, but there might be some intermediate steps on the way to developing that,” Garrett said. “A first step might be to expand current systems to work toward a global system. For example, the United States has a good national system in place, and we could work to strengthen partnerships globally.”

She said that some countries lack even a basic network to identify and communicate new pests and diseases that could spread. According to Garrett, who is also affiliated with the UF Institute for Sustainable Food Systems, today’s interconnected global economy increases the importance of having a system in place to identify and communicate threats that food producers worldwide could face.

“Having a better linked system is advantageous so information can spread,” she said. “Florida would also benefit from better surveillance systems in other countries. Even if a pathogen isn’t in Florida yet, if we understand better where it is, and where it’s moving, we can be prepared in advance.”

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