Fungal Attacks Could Imperil Food Supply, Researchers Warn

Rising temperatures are exacerbating the problem
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted May 3, 2023 5:01 PM CDT
Fungal Attacks Could Imperil Food Supply, Researchers Warn
A small coffee producer Hector Perez shows coffee beans that have been damaged by the roya fungus in San Gaspar Vivar, Guatemala, in 2013. The country declared a national emergency over the spread of coffee rust, a fungus that affected 70% of the country's crop.   (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

Fungal disease is likely to become a greater global danger, especially to the food supply, say researchers who caution that inaction could result in a health catastrophe. Researchers issued an urgent warning about fungi, which destroy more crops than any other cause, in an article published Tuesday in Nature. They want to raise awareness of the problem, as a co-author noted the TV show The Last of Us has, the Guardian reports. "While that storyline is science fiction, we are warning that we could see a global health catastrophe caused by the rapid global spread of fungal infections," Exeter professor Sarah Gurr said. "The imminent threat here is not about zombies, but about global starvation."

Rising temperatures are greatly increasing the problem. Concerns include:

  • The damage. Growers already lose 10% to 23% of their crops to fungal disease, the article says. The crops lost already "could sustain millions of people each year," said the other co-author, professor Eva Stukenbrock of Germany's University of Kiel.
  • The spread. Fungal pathogens are moving to higher latitudes. Wheat stem rust infections, which had been mostly limited to the tropics, have reached England and Ireland. Wind can take the fungi great distances. Tornadoes have picked up the spores and carried them.
  • The resilience. Fungi can adapt, and many have developed resistance to common fungicides. Breeding crops for resistance to disease isn't enough of a defense, experts say.
  • The priorities. Malnutrition could become a more imminent threat than disease, Gurr says, adding that this research area nevertheless "is absolutely penniless compared with every medical disease you could imagine."
  • The most horrific eventuality: Rising temperatures could make the fungi more tolerant of heat, the researcher say, making it possible they could jump to warm-blooded animals and humans.
(More fungus stories.)

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