Agricultural Perspective on a Pandemic

We only need look to agriculture to put our current situation into context. Every farmer has dealt with some type of new pest problem over time. There are clear analogies between what we do in agriculture and what the medical community does to combat disease challenges.

Social distancing is designed to deny the pathogen its host, so that it can’t cause new infections and disease again. Farmers do this with crop rotation. Some plant pathogens carry over from one season to the next, but crop rotation breaks this cycle. Planting alternative crops or letting land lie fallow for a season denies the pathogen its host, and it dies off over time without its host. This is the ag version of the social distancing we are all currently being asked to follow. 

Many growers have to plant the same fields every year with the same or related crops. In agriculture, we use soil fumigants to eradicate the pathogens in the soil that would cause disease in the following crop cycle. In the medical field, we use disinfectants to eradicate pathogens from our immediate surroundings so that we can’t contract disease from contaminated surfaces. Fumigating the planting bed is the ag version of surface disinfection. 

When there is an outbreak of a disease, we look for treatments to help reduce the severity of that disease. In agriculture, we have crop protection products that are applied to crops to reduce damage and losses from the pathogen. In the health field, we have prescriptions for medication that help us recover from an infection. In the case of a new plant pathogen that emerges in agriculture, we have procedures in place to help us react quickly via different types of emergency registrations, such as an EPA Section 18 emergency exemption or a 24-c special local need exemption to prevent devastating crop and economic losses. Similarly, the FDA has protocols for accelerated evaluation of medicines in outbreaks like what we are experiencing currently with the coronavirus. Crop protection products are the ag version of medicine for the sick patient. 

For longer term protection from known diseases, agriculture utilizes the skills of plant breeders to select for and develop disease resistance in new varieties. This provides farmers with more widely adapted crop options and reduces the chance of devastating crop loses to known pathogens. The plant breeders are similar to the scientists that develop vaccines. It is a long-term process but can result in tremendous advantages by virtually eliminating a pathogen’s ability to devastate a population. The vaccine does this in humans, the disease resistant genes do this in plants. 

Farmers have been fighting the battle against pests for generations. They use all the approaches available to consistently feed the world, despite new pest issues, drought, floods, untimely frosts and freezes, and never-ending challenges to secure labor to harvest crops. If we consider farmers and their sustained success in feeding the world as a model, we can be confident that we will persevere and succeed in this latest challenge. We just need to follow the ag model and do what a farmer does!

Frank Kelsey helps growers, packers and processors of fresh fruit and vegetable products address food safety and shelf life extension challenges. He has multiple publications in the area of produce safety research and has been an invited speaker at numerous industry technical conferences. He is the Chief Science Officer at Highland Ag Solutions.