National Geographic

The Plagues We’re Least Prepared For

If I asked you to name an infectious disease that has the potential to really screw us over, what would you pick? Maybe you’d choose flu, HIV or Ebola. Perhaps you’d name an upstart like MERS, or a more established threat like malaria or tuberculosis.

But how many of you named potato blight, rice blast or wheat rust? How many have even heard of cassava mosaic virus or black pod rot? Plant diseases don’t grab the limelight as readily as those that directly infect humans or other animals, but they can be equally devastating. They kill the crops we rely upon for both food and wealth, and they have a track record of crippling nations and changing the world.

In a long feature for Aeon, an exciting new online magazine, I look into the problem of plant diseases—one that we are grossly ill-equipped to deal with.

The story begins and ends in Ghana, where ants are coordinating a tangled web of pests and pestilence that threatens to bring down the country’s supply of cocoa—the plant that chocolate is made from. If Ghana loses that battle, the world’s chocolate supply would take a hit, and the country’s economic fortunes would crumble.

But I also look at other plant diseases, and how they’ve killed millions of people, shaped the history of entire countries, been used as weapons of “agroterrorism”, helped to install dictators, enshrined the British habit of tea-drinking, and showed us how microbes cause disease well before Pasteur’s famous experiments.

I discuss how we’ve lost many of the people whom we need to identify and study these diseases, and how our inability to learn our historical lessons has left our crops in an incredibly vulnerable position.

And I meet David Hughes, a scientist who has gone from studying fungi that break ant societies to diseases that break human crops. As an Irishman, Hughes is well versed with the ability of plant diseases to cause pestilence, death and famine. He’s now working to stop Ghana from suffering the same fate and, more broadly, to equip the world with the knowledge it needs.

I love writing this, and I hope you enjoy it.

There are 9 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Physicalist
    July 30, 2013

    Not CHOCOLATE!!!!!!!!!

  2. JohnR
    July 30, 2013

    Fascinating stuff; the sad bit is something I’ve been thinking more about lately – how much information we may have, that simply disappears when we die. Random observations, never recorded anywhere, perhaps unlikely to be repeated. Folks like Hughes are an extraordinary example; any field person has some information that is only stored in his head and nowhere else in the world, but Hughes and people at that level have massive volumes of stuff. I suppose it’s an old problem – as the alchemists and Druids died out without leaving apprentices, a great deal of information died with them. In a sense, it’s unfortunate that so many people have decided that the Great Cloud Of Internets contains all the wold’s knowledge. “Crowd-sourcing” can be useful, but as your piece there drives home, it all depends on somebody writing it down just as much as the Library of Alexandria.

  3. Kudzu
    July 31, 2013

    Children starve. It happens. malaria kills millions, but what are you going to do? Poverty is crushing countries, but it’s socialism to share.

    Wait… bananas or chocolate are in danger? Quick! Marshall ALL the science!

  4. Chris Little
    July 31, 2013

    The author should check APSNet (http://www.apsnet.org/Pages/default.aspx) and see that there is a whole society of people working on these problems. I think we’re better prepared than he thinks.

  5. Kassandra Muradian
    July 31, 2013

    Are you kidding?!THIS IS DEVASTATING?!WITHOUT CHOCOLATE,LOTS OF THINGS WILL FAIL!FACTORIES WILL CLOSE DOWN!CHOCOLATE VARIETIES WILL DISAPPEAR!THIS IS HUUUGE!WE NEED TO FIX THIS!sorry about the outburst :D

  6. Cody
    July 31, 2013

    Out here, the big worry is Pierce’s Disease, which can kill grapevines. Some vineyards have already died from it. It seems to have been indigenous to the Gulf Coast area. So far, just in the America’s, as far as I’m aware.

  7. Zero Population Growth
    August 1, 2013

    Perhaps this is what is needed to keep the planet alive. Humans are eating most species out of house and home from over breeding and through greed (from monoculture, i.e. palm oil, and destruction of our environment, i.e. rainforest). We ourselves as a species are a plague to the planet. At the least we need zero population growth. But male humans, the powerful of the species, are not smart enough to zip their pants. Necessary population control will be done thru war, famine, disease and pestilence.

  8. Kathy S.
    October 17, 2013

    Please do one on the disease that’s supposed to be responsible for the decrease in bee populations. Thanks.

  9. Rebecca Nolen
    March 11, 2014

    I’ve always been fascinated and looking for articles on the importance of our biological weapons (meaning beneficial insects). I’d love to see more blogs on this subject. Thanks

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