The global coronavirus pandemic is exposing vulnerabilities in many of the systems we normally take for granted. Hospitals in New York, northern Italy and other disease epicenters have been overwhelmed with patients, putting doctors in the grim position of having to ration medical supplies and care.
Food systems are also under strain, as panic buyers empty store shelves of staple products like flour and eggs, and lockdowns lead to farm labor shortages and slower international trade. In low-income countries, the situation is even more critical — business shutdowns and movement restrictions are leaving millions without any source of income, and without government safety nets, many are at risk of hunger and sliding deeper into poverty.
Epidemiologists and public health experts had long warned that a devastating pandemic was possible, and still we weren’t prepared. By working together, humanity will eventually weather this crisis. It is exceedingly important that when we do, we learn from our experience and pay attention to other alarm bells that are still sounding. Case in point: diseases aren’t just a problem for human health — they also pose giant risks to crops and livestock, with the potential to upend our agricultural systems and threaten local and global food supplies.
How Diseases Spread
In our modern world, diseases have abundant opportunities to spread. Human populations are increasingly expanding into wild areas, creating potential for transmission between humans, wild animals and livestock. About 60 to 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, meaning that they can jump between animals and humans, according to the World Health Organization. Recent examples include a strain of H1N1 swine flu, which killed several hundred thousand people globally in 2009 and 2010.
Climate change also enables plant diseases and pests to spread more easily. For example, yellow rust, a fungal disease that attacks wheat, has been making inroads in the U.S. as temperatures warm. The disease, which commonly reduces crop yields by 40 percent, was not present in the U.S. Great Plains wheat belt until 30 years ago, according to research from my organization, CGIAR.
The Devastating Effects of Plant and Livestock Diseases
History has shown time and again the disastrous effects that crop and livestock diseases can have. In the 19th century, about 1 million people died due to the Great Famine in Ireland, after a blight infested the country’s potatoes. Rinderpest, a cattle disease similar to measles, decimated livestock herds in East Africa in the 1880s, causing the starvation of about one-third of Ethiopia’s human population. More recently, an outbreak of the H5N2 strain of avian influenza in the U.S. Midwest in 2014-2015 led to the death and destruction of 50 million poultry, costing more than $3 billion.
A whole host of transboundary diseases continue to threaten farm livelihoods and increase food prices for consumers, with climate change driving new and more ferocious outbreaks. The World Organization for Animal Health estimates that diseases cause the loss of at least 20 percent of the world’s livestock production every year, representing at least 60 million metric tons of meat and 150 million tons of milk valued at $300 billion. In the past two years, African swine fever has killed more than 100 million pigs in China, the world’s largest pork consumer, and has now entered Europe. There is no treatment or vaccine, and experts warn it is only a matter of time before it reaches the U.S. and its multi-billion-dollar pork industry.
Developing countries are especially at risk, because food is often produced by small-scale farmers who depend on their harvests for survival. Multiple staple food crops face serious threats from pests and diseases. Fall armyworms, an invasive pest native to North America, have been spreading recently across Africa due to climate change, annually destroying as much as 18 million metric tons of corn, enough to feed tens of millions of people, according to the United Nations’ Food & Agriculture Organization. Wheat crops in Africa and the Middle East have been affected by a highly destructive fungus known as UG99 — a particularly bad outbreak in 2007 was responsible for cutting wheat yields by 80 percent in parts of Kenya.
The Necessity of Agricultural Research
The best way to fight a disease outbreak is to prevent it from happening in the first place. This is why agricultural research is so important. Agricultural science has already had some great successes in curbing epidemics. For example, the spread of maize lethal necrosis, a virus that has devastated corn crops in East Africa, has been slowed thanks to new, improved maize varieties that are resistant to the disease. Agricultural research centers, such as those in the CGIAR System, are working to develop solutions to the world’s most dangerous crop and animal diseases. They also serve as early warning and response systems, ready to sound the alarm and control the spread when new outbreaks emerge.
Yet public spending on agricultural research has been declining since the 2008-2009 financial crisis — a worrying development given the multiple disease threats that exist. High-income countries reduced spending on agriculture R&D by almost 6 percent between 2009 and 2013, the first sustained drop in 50 years, according to inflation-adjusted data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In the U.S., the rate of decline is even bigger — public funding fell by 20 percent from 2008 to 2013, USDA data show.
The novel coronavirus pandemic is a devastating reminder of just how quickly new pathogens can spread. Hopefully, the international community will take heed and do more to stop other diseases that could imperil our health and food supplies.
One of the many lessons of this pandemic is that it is far cheaper to invest in early prevention and containment. The same applies to plant and livestock diseases, so let’s reverse the decline in agricultural research spending and fully fund organizations like CGIAR that are tackling disease threats where they originate and before they spread.
Elwyn Grainger-Jones is the executive director of the CGIAR System Organization, a global agricultural research partnership with 15 nonprofit research centers around the world. He has over 25 years of experience in agriculture and international development, having previously worked for the Overseas Development Institute, the U.K.’s Department for International Development (DFID), the World Bank, and International Fund for Agricultural Development.