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Will coronavirus produce a moonshot for crops technology?

Money and research that’s pouring into a COIVD-19 vaccine may spill over into crops technology.

Before COVID-19, massive human pandemics seemed relegated to the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. No more. 

So, could an equivalent happen in crops? 

It already did in 1970 and 1971. That’s when southern corn leaf blight (SCLB) ravaged North American cornfields, destroying 15% of the corn crop and inflicting  $1 billion in damage. ($6.61 billion in 2020 dollars), according to a May 5, 2017, paper written by H. Arnold Bruns, a USDA-ARS research plant physiologist based in Stoneville, Mississippi.  In some cases, yield losses of 80% to 100% occurred. 

Losses resulted from overreliance on the cytoplasmic Texas male sterile (cms-T) lines in hybrid seed production and a natural mutation of a race of SCLB bipolar maydis that for years was seldom of economic importance, noted Bruns. The cms-T was discontinued in 1971, and hybrid seed production returned to using detasseling for the female parent. 

No problems of this magnitude have since occurred. This served as a warning to the seed-production business never to purify the genetics of crops to such an extent as this again and to preserve genetic diversity, according to Bruns. 

Ominous signs have occurred since then, though. In 2005, Asian soybean rust — which originated in Japan in 1902 — that ravaged Brazilian soybeans threatened U.S. soybean production. Fortunately, it could not survive the hard freezes that occur in most of the United States.

 Citrus greening — which has placed the future of U.S. citrus crops at risk — is caused by a bacterium spread by the Asian citrus psyllid. Like COVID-19, citrus greening originated in China. 

“Those are a couple examples of diseases that have been spread on a global basis,” says Mike Miille, chief executive officer of Joyn Bio.

On the Bright Side

There’s a silver lining in all this, though, says Miille. Eventually, spillover effects of the search for rapid  COVID-19 tests and a vaccine could translate into new agricultural technologies. It’s akin to the 1960s space race, when the move to beat the former Soviet Union to the moon led to numerous new technologies that were seemingly unrelated to the original purpose, he adds.

“There’s going to be a wave of money and a push from a technology standpoint,” says Miille. “Right now, it's all directed toward testing and creating a vaccine. This is taking science and pushing it at an accelerated level driven by this pandemic at a speed that would not normally have occurred. At some point, it’s all going to tie together.

“I think it's going to be to raise the awareness of the general population for how critical testing is,” he adds. “When people look back in three or four years, there's going to be some new innovations that originated around some of this accelerated and enhanced activity.”


Accelerate Existing Technologies

COVID-19 may also accelerate adoption of existing technologies that farmers were already starting to integrate into their operations, says Mike DiPaola, North American general manager and vice president of global sales for Taranis

Accessing labor was already difficult for farmers and agricultural input dealers before COVID-19. Digital tools like imagery combined with artificial intelligence can form “digital labor” that can help ease labor concerns, says DiPaola.

Taranis offers UAV, aerial, and satellite imagery that’s coupled artificial intelligence in order to quickly identify maladies like weed and diseases, says DiPaola. 

“It doesn’t replace agronomists, but agronomists who use these tools will flourish over agronomists who do not,” says DiPaola. Artificial intelligence can identify and aggregate visual images so farmers, dealers, and agronomists can detect, assess, and develop a plan to counter crop threats, he says. 

“I think a lot of this was happening already, with the level of robots and precision agriculture access,” Miille adds. Although robotic technology is being evaluated in the Midwest, it particularly now fills a niche in fruit and vegetable production in states like California because it helps minimize human exposure to COVID-19, Miille says.


Appreciation for Agriculture

One silver lining regarding COVID-19 is that agriculture has been designated as an essential industry. That may further highlight the importance of agriculture with the general public, says Paul Rea, BASF senior vice president, agricultural solutions, North America.

“It shows that we shouldn't take for granted what shows up on the  supermarket shelf every week,” he says. “It should lead to more understanding of what a difficult job farmers do year-in and year-out, despite many challenges. I also think there’s an opportunity for a different entry point into the discussion of how we farm sustainably in the future.”

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