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Putting food on world's table is not easy
Grass is always greener...
Don GardnerColor
Don Gardner is the UGA extension agent for Bryan County. - photo by File photo

Putting food on the world’s table requires understanding and managing the genetic diversity of the crop plants and the disease-causing organisms (fungi, bacteria, viruses and nematodes), insects and weeds. We have to employ diverse strategies and tactics to outsmart pests: sanitation, planting dates, trap crops, beneficial pests-of-the-pests like ladybugs, exclusion through quarantines and plant inspection stations, cultural controls like deep plowing or hoeing weeds out between the rows in your garden.

Plant breeders and pesticide companies are always trying to discover something unique or novel about how a host plant or its pest does business so they can exploit that difference to help the plant or hurt the pest. The Holy Grail is a durable resistance gene in rice to rice blast disease or a chemical that renders the fungus harmless.

Consider this long passage from research by The American Phytopathological Society:

"Rice is the staple food crop for a large part of the human population in the world today. Rice blast is by far the most important disease of the many diseases that attack rice. It is found wherever rice is grown, it is always important, and it is always a threat. Failures of entire rice crops have resulted directly from rice blast epidemics. The challenge for research continues to be to produce high quality food, in ever-increasing amounts at lower costs, all while in the presence of an unforgiving and unrelenting pathogen. All of the plant disease management strategies and techniques that have been generated through research have been brought to bear against rice blast, but often with limited success. Rice blast has never been eliminated from a region in which rice is grown, and a single change in the way in which rice is grown or in the way resistance genes are deployed can result in significant disease losses even after years of successful management. This disease is a model that demonstrates the seriousness, elusiveness, and longevity of some plant diseases. Rice blast has been widely studied throughout the world. Many investigators have considered it to be a model disease for the study of genetics, epidemiology, molecular pathology of host parasite interactions and biology. Recent advances in understanding the genes that govern the avirulence (resistance) and virulence (susceptibility) interactions have been made with rice blast, and each advance has helped us to understand how other plant diseases work. It is also important to note that the entire genomes of the rice blast fungus and rice have been sequenced and that M. oryzae is the first plant pathogenic fungus to have its genome sequenced and released to the public." (

Did you catch that last sentence? Rice and the rice blast fungus are so important to the continued survival of the human race that the entire genome of both have been sequenced and released to anyone who thinks they can help.

We heard a lot of ballyhoo about the Human Genome Project (1990-2003). Do you remember the ballyhoo around the rice and rice blast genome projects? Of course not! There was none. Remember what I said last time about fighting the battle in the shadows?

The outbreaks of wars in human history typically are preceded by a population being faced with starvation. As examples I give you Germany in the 1920s and the recent "Arab Spring." Keeping people fed is a principal tool for peace. Over half the world is utterly dependent on rice for their caloric needs. An epidemic of rice blast followed by starvation lights the match for political conflict. Of course the potential profits to be made by controlling this global disease are huge. Rice blast is almost certainly one of the first diseases against which a new fungicide is tested. I am oversimplifying, but first the research arm of the company will test the effectiveness of new compounds against a variety of diseases and pests. Those that look promising will get further testing and toxicity screening. Once the company thinks it has a winner the company will develop the formulation and application methods.

If the compound passes all those internal tests, it is often released to the university researchers for side-by-side field testing with proven treatments and other new releases from other companies. The universities do not do this work for free. Testing new cultivars, pesticides, control tactics and methods by the universities is an important part of university funding and a source for generating new knowledge and of course, money. The results of non-biased scientific field testing by universities are often an important component in deciding whether to market the new plant cultivar or market a new pesticide. Sometimes our best work is finding out what not to spend any more money developing.

All these results go into a package of information for EPA to digest and consider in deciding whether to register a pesticide and allow its use. Until a month or so ago the decision of EPA on whether to grant registration was based on the research in the submitted package. All the information in the package is based on real results encountered in real tests conducted in real test plots using approved toxicology testing methods and real results in real soil in the real world. Companies routinely had the opportunity to present their results to EPA and argue the methods and results. Now that opportunity to present real world research results has been denied to a chemical company based not on the real-world actual results obtained when tested but based on a mathematical model. Just like anthropomorphic global warming.

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