Pest management in Europe, it's everybody's business
With livelihoods at stake, Europe's farmers are relying on the support of the EU and international research expertise to prevent and/or mitigate widespread damage to their crops and harvests. The scale of the cooperation involved shows that integrated pest management is everybody's business.
© Cesare Palma #149780486 2019, source:stock.adobe.com
Olives have been grown in southern Italy for centuries, so growers are well aware of the constant threat of traditional pests and diseases attacking their valuable crops. One threat they hoped to never come across was Xylella fastidiosa, a leaf-scorching plant disease common in some countries in the Americas. Yet they were wrong. The sudden emergence of this pest in 2013 was a wake-up call that more needed to be done to prevent widespread harm to vital agro-businesses across Europe.
The EU-backed POnTE project answered that call, bringing together 25 partners from Europe and Latin America whose expertise in plant protection, agro-engineering and economics was needed to develop an integrated programme targeting aggressive pathogens like X. fastidiosa, which affect olive and nut-growers, but also vineyards, citrus orchards, stone fruit farms as well as ornamental plant and tree production.
Project researchers are investigating other pathogens too; namely Candidatus Liberibacter solanacearum, which affects vital crops such as the Apiaceae family of plants, including carrots and celery, and Hymenoscyphus fraxineus and Phytophthora spp., which attack broad-leaf and conifer species in forest ecosystems. Attention is being paid not only to the diseases and how they spread (their vectors), but also the way they behave in contact with their hosts (the plants).
For example, after being introduced to Italy it was confirmed that Xylella fastidiosa piggybacked an efficient vector, the meadow spittlebug, which is widely found in European countries, according to POnTEs coordinator, Donato Boscia from the National Research Council of Italys Institute for Sustainable Plant Protection. The bacterium was first detected in the olive groves of southern Italy in 2013. By early 2016, it had infected or killed the majority of trees in the Gallipoli area of Apulia. The pest spread so fast that the authorities were forced to give up hopes of eradicating it; a radical containment programme had to be introduced.
In under three years, scorch leaf had devastated the regions olive sector and a local economy that depended on it. Just think how many livelihoods could be lost if it was allowed to spread further or if other pests are allowed to enter Europe and cause havoc in strategic food and feed crops; that scenario is what POnTE was determined to prevent, he stresses.
Know the enemy
The ongoing four-year POnTE programme covers the full gambit of disease surveillance, early detection, prevention, mitigation and management, including epidemiology studies and pest risk assessments.
The ability to contain the spread is the key to minimising the socio-economic impact, notes Aleksa Obradovic of Belgrade University, a POnTE partner. This means we need to know as much about these pests as possible; about their biology and epidemiology, what they like and dont like; how we can stop them in their tracks.
This is partly where diverse international partners come in, as many pests are introduced from other regions which may already have significant experience in dealing with them.
Our contribution as part of the POnTE research effort focuses on broadening the biologic and genetic information related to Xylella fastidiosa strains circulating in Costa Rica. This information is of great scientific value because it improves understanding of some of the traits present in Xylella fastidiosa strains found in Italy as well as in other European countries through comparative analysis, while promoting international collaboration within the consortium, says POnTE project partner Carlos Chacon Diaz from the University of Costa Rica. An example of this in action, he explains, is the optimisation of a series of in vitro assays that could eventually be used in reference and research units for Xylella fastidiosa phenotypic profiling, such as observed biochemical and fatty acid characteristics, as well as biofilm formation assays.
Continuous improvement in scientific cooperation with other regions and countries is also important in preventing the introduction of infected plant material and disease-carrying vectors, the researcher explains.
The outcome of all this work by diverse partners, including SMEs developing diagnostic kits and services, agrochemical and seed companies as well as stakeholder groups, will be an integrated pest management (IPM) strategy taking into account disease resistance, disease-free planting material, cultural practices, and environmentally-friendly treatments.
This coherent, practical and sustainable IPM will guide informed decision-making and policies aimed at protecting valuable agro-business across the EU, and beyond.