Reflections on the 10th International Congress of Plant Pathology, Beijing August 25th-30th

2013-08-30 13.57.38The 10th International Congress of Plant Pathology was held in Beijing between August 25th and 30th. The congress, which is organized by the International Society for Plant Pathology (ISPP) meets every five years.  The theme of 10th Congress was the role of plant pathology in achieving global food security. At the 7th congress (in Edinburgh in 1998) the father of the Green Revolution, Noble Laureate and plant pathologist/plant breeder, Norman Borlaug, challenged plant pathologists to tackle the looming global food crisis. Borlaug’s challenge was issued after two decades of declining public funding for plant breeding and field research on the effects of disease on crop yield; trends which have continued in the 15 years since the 8th Congress.  A Task Force on Food Security was established by the ISPP in response to Borlaug’s challenge and the program in Beijing was centered on an update on its progress. A great deal of what was said during the Food Security sessions of the congress worrying and depressing. The many inter-connected problems facing us in feeding our growing population were described several times. The themes of stagnant growth in crop yields, flat or declining land availability, competition between food and bio-fuel crops for land, declining availability of clean water, increasing use of mineral fertilizers, and (of course) the ever increasing need for food, were discussed by most of the keynote speakers and many other participants. Almost as often as these problems were mentioned, the idea that science and technology will provide the answers was expressed with conviction and genuine optimism.

After a while there seemed to be a desperate feel to it all. It was as if the need for there to be answers was acting as sufficient reason alone for many people to believe that answers exist. However understandable this is, it is a kind of magical thinking. A huge number of people are in for miserable lives if ways to increase food security are not found, and found quickly, but the awfulness

of this truth has no causal effect on the existence of answers. The continuing belief that basic research into gene function and cell biology will deliver the solution is as puzzling as it is worrying. Yield gains in several of the worlds staple crops have stagnated over the last 20 years, a period when the tools of molecular biology have had wide deployment in plant breeding. A 2004 report (see para. 2.11 in by the Biology and Biotechnology Research Council in the UK (the main funder of basic research in biology in the UK) noted that: “At present, however, the advances made in basic plant science are not yet having a significant impact on strategic and applied research in crop science … There is a need for greater emphasis on crop improvement research to be carried out alongside, and feeding from basic plant science research programmes. BBSRC plant science research has tended to favour reductive work at the expense of studies at the whole organism and systems level.” Although it considered only the situation in the UK, the BBSRC’s report was relevant to publicly funded research across the developed economies. Ten years later this situation has hardly changed. Basic research into plant gene function and regulation is difficult to translate into applied research and development focused on practical answers to the complex issues we face.

Despite this well known translation problem, the consensus among the invited speakers seemed to be that recent advances in basic biology would start to produce answers soon. This is a message that I have been hearing since I was an undergraduate student in the mid 1980’s, before the first first successful use of biotechnology for genetic modification of a plant. Then, before the concept was proven, the optimism was understandable.  Thirty years later there has been a handful of successful transformations, a vast increase in the quantity of genomic and proteomic data, and we are as far from tackling the problem of food security as ever.  However awful the future looks we shouldn’t allow wishful thinking to turn into blind faith that Dr Pangloss’s gene gun fires silver bullets.

For me, however, the more important weakness of the congress was the failure to define human population growth as the root cause of the problem, rather than simply as one of a number of contributing factors.  The projected size of the human population was mentioned by almost every speaker in the task-force plenary sessions.  Not one, that I can remember, suggested that doing something about the problem might, in the long run, be more effective than trying to mitigate the effects of growth. Some (perhaps many) plant pathologists would argue that it’s not the role of our discipline to make statements about, or to come up with answers for, the problem of human population growth.  We deal with plant disease and try to reduce its impact on crop yield.  It’s someone else’s job to work out what to do about the number of mouths to feed and consequently how much crop and yield loss matters, they might say.  There is some validity in this position, but I think it sells us short in two important ways.  First, as scientists, we are trained to be experts in objectivity and rational analysis.  We can and should apply these generic tools to problems, such as population growth, which transcend disciplinary boundaries.  Using our disciplinary focus as an excuse to avoid having to engage with tough issues seems like professional cowardice. Second, an international gathering of the discipline, with several high profile speakers, has the chance of attracting press coverage; not having at least one of the keynote speakers talk directly about the need for action to slow population growth seems like a missed opportunity to contribute to the policy debate. We do not have so many chances for that privilege that we can afford to squander them.

On a more optimistic note, a new subject matter committee (SMC) was inaugurated at the congress.  The Biotic Constraints to Food and Fibre Production SMC will be a focus for activity within the ISPP on yield loss and crop loss arising from diseases primarily, but also pests and weeds.  The new SMC is chaired by 1680kcal member Serge Savary and several of the other members of 1680kcal are also participants in the SMC.  We have set ourselves the task of making two inventories, one of available data for global crop and yield losses and the other of validated crop models, for the major staple crops, that can be used for simulating yield or crop loss in ex ante analyses. We will have completed our stock-taking and reporting by the 11th ICPP, in Boston MA in 2018, and will hold a workshop some time around the mid-point between now and the Boston congress.  The existing data which are used to estimate crop/yield losses are known to be inaccurate and may be subject to systematic bias.  This is a worry for two reasons.  First, if the estimates are inaccurate and biased, policy decisions about where outreach or research efforts should be made may be badly misjudged.  Second, the apparent availability of loss estimates, allows funders and policy makers to ignore the need for investment in the research and infrastructure needed to collect accurate and unbiased data; which brings us back to the issue, raised earlier, about the of a lack of translational research between basic plant science and practical use.

CaptureHistorically, by and large, publicly-funded extension services across the developing world would have been responsible for translation of the products of basic research into field practice.  They would also have been in the front line of efforts to gather yield and crop loss data.  Unfortunately, over the last 20 years public sector extension services across Africa and South Asia have been allowed to atrophy (although they are still alive).  In many cases the vacuum caused by their decline has not been filled at all.  In others it has been filled by private sector agents tied to private seed and agrochemical companies.  By highlighting just how impoverished our true state of knowledge about crop and yield loss really is, perhaps the new SMC will be able to generate the evidence base needed for some better-informed policy making about support for applied research and extension in developing countries.