There has been a lot of controversy over how Covid-19 emerged. For the past one and half year, Covid-19 – an invasive, highly infectious and virulent disease has devastated public health and plagued the healthcare system in India and across the globe. At the same time, though remaining unnoticed at urban policy level, a troika of alien enemies have infiltrated agriculture and plagued farmers and their crops in the last few years. Despite experts sounding alarms for years, the biosecurity, phytosanitary import regulation and quarantine measures failed to contain the influx of invasive pests and diseases.
The first and foremost enemy of agriculture is the invasive fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda J.E. Smith) that invaded the hinterlands in May 2018. It is a devastating pest of maize and now can be seen damaging sugarcane, sorghum and millets. The second unknown enemy is a fungal plant pathogen (Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense) novel strain “Tropical Race-4” (TR-4) infecting the banana crop in recent years. Last, but not the least is a ravenous migratory pest desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria), a gregarious pest that has become a nuisance to farmers in last two years. In many areas, these crop enemies have taken a toll as farmers are grappling with management practices and effective control measures.
Compromising food security
The new enemies of agriculture are described as the equivalent of Covid-19 and have the potential to spread like an epidemic in agriculture and compromise India’s food security. It is time that crop health enemies get the kind of policy attention given for the management of Covid-19, including the fast-tracking emergency approval of novel biotherapeutics and vaccines, surveillance of prevalence, determination of micro-containment zones and awareness about appropriate behaviour. Strengthening phytosanitary and quarantine measures, shedding anti-science bias towards genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) and genome editing, fast-tracking approval of biotech traits and crop protection molecules and deployment of drones are some of key areas of interventions for the prevention and mitigation of risk by invasive pests and diseases in agriculture. The Indian government must look beyond the manufactured pseudo-controversy and misinformation about science of agriculture; enable policy environment, streamline regulatory processes and monitor inter-ministerial cooperation in multiple regulatory bodies to achieve the goal of crop health and food security
A recent rapid roving survey by SABC of fodder maize crop in some parts of Aurangabad division in early summer indicated a worrying trend of FAW infestation in fodder maize fields that can have a spill over impact of commercial maize in the forthcoming kharif season. Moreover, there were reports of FAW infestation of maize crop planted in spring and summer in North, North-East and Southern India. There is a need to keep close watch on pest dynamics and maize growers must be alerted for imminent threat, if any. The rapid migration of FAW since May 2018 shows the ability of the pest to quickly reproduce, aggressive feeding as well as fast migration to maize producing regions. The agricultural R&D and extension system must not remain complacent, and farmers need to be wary of the ravenous fall armyworm.
Novel fungal strain
In addition, a novel fungal strain TR-4 has been recently reported in 2017 and emerged as a big threat to banana fruit plantation in Bihar, UP, MP and Maharashtra. The TR-4 race of panama wilt of banana has leapfrogged across the globe, beginning from Taiwan, then to South Asia, Africa and has now entered India. The strain TR-4 affects the widely cultivated exportable banana variety Grand Naine (G-9) and can cause huge loss to farmers and spread rapidly in soil and water. Until now, the banana crop planted over nine lakh hectares largely remains pest-free except some manageable disease such as Sigatoka and Bunchy top virus. The large-scale banana plantation in Bihar, UP, MP, Maharashtra and Gujarat are vulnerable to disease TR-4 and can sufferunless it is properly controlled. None of the cultivated varieties are resistant. Therefore, there is a need forsurveillance to understand the infection and symptoms of this disease for timely control measures. Currently the only remedy is to identify the wilted plants due to TR-4 and destroy them to avoid contamination. Sanitation of the banana gardens is the best preventive measure.
Undoubtedly, monitoring and surveillance are the hallmarks for early response, control measures and effective management of the invasive enemies. Desert locust is the classic example of how the proper monitoring allows FAO to provide forecasts, early warning and alerts on the timing, breeding, scale and location of invasions. India suffered locust outbreak in 2020 and we must now actively coordinate with FAO Locust Plan to assess possibility of migration of locust swarms from Africa toward South-West Asia in the future. Developing bilateral collaboration with locust hosts as well as affected countries is key to track, trace and mitigate damage.
Another big question is how innovation in biotechnology would be made available in our country to better control the fall armyworm as well as TR-4 fungal disease. The US and Latin American countries have been able to control fall armyworm for the past 20 years using insect resistant Bt maize. Australian scientists have recently developed genetically-modified bananas using the genome edited CRISPR technique for Fusarium mutant TR-4. These technologies will soon be adopted by banana growing countries to overcome the unbearable impact of Fusarium disease. In India, the policy uncertainty on genetically modified crops has already delayed introduction of safe and proven biotechnologies in maize, soybean and canola.
Novel vaccines and biotherapeutics developed by genetic modification techniques have been expeditiously approved for mass inoculation, however, the genetic modification in agriculture is delayed and denied to millions of farmers except for Bt cotton, successfully commercialised in 2002 and planted over 95 per cent of cotton area in 2020. Despite a biological war, a robust policy environment and a big push to R&D and innovation can eradicate the troika of alien enemies, improve farm realisation and sustainable agriculture.
(Chaudhary is the founder-director of South Asia Biotechnology Centre (SABC), Jodhpur; Agale is Research Scientist at SABC; and Mayee, President of board of directors of the Centre)