Fungal Disease in Crops Could Devastate Global Food Supply

If you’ve seen the popular television show The Last of Us, you may have unlocked a new fear: fungal infections taking over human brains and turning people into zombies. And while that’s entirely science fiction and not something we have to worry about, fungal infections are very real – and they are developing increased resistance as the world warms. This has serious consequences for the global food supply.

A Global Issue

Worldwide, 10 to 23 percent of crops are lost to fungal infections each year – despite the widespread use of antifungals. A commentary published in Nature predicts that these figures will continue to worsen as global warming causes fungal infections to move poleward. In fact, wheat stem rust infections, normally found in the tropics, have been seen in England and Ireland. Furthermore, experts warn that higher temperature tolerance in fungi increases the likelihood of these pathogens being able to “hop” to animals or humans. (Cue the zombie apocalypse fears.)

A Perfect Storm for Fungal Infections

The commentary highlights a “perfect storm” allowing fungal infections to spread rapidly:

  • Fungi are incredibly resilient and can remain viable in soil for up to 40 years. Airborne spores can even travel between continents.
  • Fungi are extremely adaptable, and modern farming practices provide the perfect breeding grounds for fast-evolving organisms such as fungi.
  • Widespread antifungal use means fungi evolves and resists, and the more antifungal used, the more accelerated the pace of resistance developing.

What’s the Solution?

In 2020, a team at the University of Exeter discovered a new chemistry for antifungals that could make it harder for fungi to develop resistance. The group found the antifungal to be effective against a range of fungal diseases that affect crops like wheat, rice, corn, and fruit.

A study in Denmark showed promise by planting seed mixtures that carry genes resistant to fungal infection. Remote sensing tools like drones can also help to detect outbreaks early, allowing for appropriate action to control the problem.

One thing is for sure: The world will need a unified approach to this problem as global warming continues to worsen. Farmers, the agricultural industry, biologists, and governments will need to work in tandem to ensure the food supply isn’t affected more than it already has been.

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