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Crop Pests Move Polewards to Flee Warming Climate, Threaten Global Food Security

Climate
Crop Pests Move Polewards to Flee Warming Climate, Threaten Global Food Security

Climate News Network

By Tim Radford

A fungus is heading your way. The caterpillars are on the march. So are viruses and any number of insects and nematode worms, and since 1960 they have been shifting north and south at an average speed of three kilometers a year as the world warms, according to researchers at Exeter University in the UK.

Sandra Gurr and colleagues reported in Nature Climate Change that they looked at more than 26,000 observations of 612 well-known crop pests and had access to observations made much earlier, including the first record of fungus attack on oilseed rape in the UK in 1822.

Crop pests can cause famine, devastation and economic ruin. The nineteenth century Irish potato famine was caused by the pathogen Phytophthora infestans and the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 was blamed on the fungus Helminthosporium oryzae. And French winegrowers have never forgotten or forgiven the Phylloxera aphid that destroyed the vineyards.

But losses to crop pests are a quiet disaster now: they routinely destroy between 10 percent and 16 percent of all crops—a lost harvest that would otherwise feed more than eight percent of the planet’s people.

And, warned Gurr and her co-authors, crop pests are still a threat to food security. The spread of pests towards the poles is certainly helped by human activity and they believe the most effective agency is international freight transport.

But global warming is making it a little easier every year for the pests to find a comfortable home and easy pickings in previously unsuitable regions.

The mountain pine beetle Dendroctonus ponderosae has destroyed large areas of pine forest in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Rice blast fungus has now reached 80 countries, has had a dramatic effect on agricultural economies and on local ecosystems, and—ominously—has evolved to develop a taste for wheat. Wheat blast is now a big problem in Brazil.

One reason for concern is that countries at higher latitudes—essentially, the developed world—are better able to monitor and manage emerging pests and diseases. But these are also the countries with the highest yields per hectare.

If climate change makes it easier for crop diseases to spread, then there must be even more effort to watch out for new infestations and to control the spread of diseases. There is simply more to lose.

“Renewed efforts are required to monitor the spread of crop pests and to control their movement from region to region if we are to halt the relentless destruction of crops across the world in the face of climate change,” said Professor Gurr.

“If crop pests continue to march polewards as the Earth warms the combined effects of a growing world population and the increased loss of crops to pests will pose a serious threat to global food security,” said Gurr's colleague Dan Bebber.

Visit EcoWatch’s CLIMATE CHANGE page for more related news on this topic.

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An aerial view taken on August 8, 2020 shows a large patch of leaked oil from the MV Wakashio off the coast of Mauritius. STRINGER / AFP / Getty Images

The tiny island nation of Mauritius, known for its turquoise waters, vibrant corals and diverse ecosystem, is in the midst of an environmental catastrophe after a Japanese cargo ship struck a reef off the country's coast two weeks ago. That ship, which is still intact, has since leaked more than 1,000 metric tons of oil into the Indian Ocean. Now, a greater threat looms, as a growing crack in the ship's hull might cause the ship to split in two and release the rest of the ship's oil into the water, NPR reported.

On Friday, Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth declared a state of environmental emergency.

France has sent a military aircraft carrying pollution control equipment from the nearby island of Reunion to help mitigate the disaster. Additionally, Japan has sent a six-member team to assist as well, the BBC reported.

The teams are working to pump out the remaining oil from the ship, which was believed to be carrying 4,000 metric tons of fuel.

"We are expecting the worst," Mauritian Wildlife Foundation manager Jean Hugues Gardenne said on Monday, The Weather Channel reported. "The ship is showing really big, big cracks. We believe it will break into two at any time, at the maximum within two days. So much oil remains in the ship, so the disaster could become much worse. It's important to remove as much oil as possible. Helicopters are taking out the fuel little by little, ton by ton."

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The oil spill has already killed marine animals and turned the turquoise water black. It's also threatening the long-term viability of the country's coral reefs, lagoons and shoreline, NBC News reported.

"We are starting to see dead fish. We are starting to see animals like crabs covered in oil, we are starting to see seabirds covered in oil, including some which could not be rescued," said Vikash Tatayah, conservation director at Mauritius Wildlife Foundation, according to The Weather Channel.

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Reuters reported that sugar cane leaves, plastic bottles and human hair donated by locals are being sewn into makeshift booms.

Human hair absorbs oil, but not water, so scientists have long suggested it as a material to contain oil spills, Gizmodo reported. Mauritians are currently collecting as much human hair as possible to contribute to the booms, which consist of tubes and nets that float on the water to trap the oil.

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