RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The Irish potato famine of the 19th century killed a million people and forced just as many to migrate, mainly to the United States.

The blight that killed the potato crop then still exists now – as do other pathogens threatening products like wheat, bananas and even coffee.

So it’s not just human diseases that are raising red flags.

“Plant diseases are equally important because many of our major staple food supplies are threatened by crop disease,” said Jean Ristaino, William Neal Reynolds distinguished professor of Plant Pathology at North Carolina State University.

Jean Ristaino

Ristaino leads a group of researchers at N.C. State working with other scientists around the globe to come up with solutions to this increasing problem.

Trade and climate change are driving the increase in crop disease in both developed and undeveloped countries.

“We’re seeing more hurricanes, more rainy periods, and many plant diseases spread in rainfall or in wind,” said Ristaino.

That wind can carry disease spores for thousands of miles.

North Carolina farmers are not immune to storms, excessive rain, wind, and flooding.

Essential in staying ahead of these pathogens is the ability to monitor, detect and predict.

To do that Ristaino and her team are further developing sensor technology to detect disease before it can spread and kill an entire field.

“That combined with wireless technology that can send reports back to a cloud computer, alert a grower that a disease in the field and that they need to do something like spray a fungicide or maybe plant a resistant variety the next year,” said Ristaino.

Economists, engineers, crop scientists, crop disease specialists, geneticists, geographers, data analysts, statisticians and others working together.

The GRIP4PSI Plant Science Initiative is helping to fund the program at N.C. State.

The toilet paper shortage induced by the COVID-19 pandemic is nothing compared to the anxiety, fear, and public unrest a food crisis could bring.

The hope is to globally connect newly developed monitoring systems to maintain food security for all of us.

“There are a few existing surveillance networks, but they need to be connected and funded by intergovernmental agencies and expanded to global surveillance systems,” Ristaino said.

The Persistent Threat of Emerging Plant Disease Pandemics to Global Food Security was published May 17, 2021 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It’s authored by Ristaino, Pamela Anderson, Dan Bebber, Kate A. Brauman, Nik J. Cunniffe, Nina Fedoroff, Cambria Finegold, Karen A. Garrett, Christopher A. Gilligan, Christopher Jones, Michael Martin, Graham K. MacDonald, Patricia Neenan, Angela Records, David Schmale, Laura Tateosian, Qingshan Wei.