How canola diseases act like COVID-19

There are startling similarities between public health and plant health as coronavirus precautions reveal

Clubroot and other crop diseases have startlingly similar transmission pathways and preventive measures as public health challenges such as COVID.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, society is gaining a whole new understanding of how diseases spread and how following proper precautions can make a huge impact on slowing the spread.

While the human stakes are lower for crop diseases, the economic stakes can be high — and the similarities between COVID-19 and crop disease management is startlingly relatable. The transmission of pathogens and the methods used to mitigate the risk draw a strange but familiar parallel.

There are many common factors regarding crop disease and COVID-19. Like human infectious agents, it is known that transmission from host to host (field to field) is largely due to direct contact, resulting in contamination of an otherwise “clean” field.

Whether it be soil-borne crop disease, insect species or weed seeds, movement of soil between fields can easily transport these unwanted hitchhikers between fields.

Justine Cornelsen. photo: File

“Biosecurity on grain farms is becoming a much larger topic for discussion,” said Justine Cornelsen, an agronomy specialist with the Canola Council of Canada, based out of Virden. “Grain farms are starting to create their own biosecurity (and/or sanitation) protocols.”

There have been significant studies done on soil-borne crop diseases like clubroot and verticillium stripe (affecting canola) and soybean cyst nematode (in soybeans), and it is a known fact that strict sanitation practices do lessen the risk of transmission.

“With our short growing season here, sanitation is often overlooked as it is a lot of work to clean equipment between fields when there is such a small window to sow or harvest a crop,” said Cornelsen. “Trying to knock off big clumps of soil can help to reduce the risk significantly; washing and/or sanitizing helps to completely reduce the risk of pest spreading.”

As an agronomist, Cornelsen is required to follow a strict sanitation protocol, much like we are currently practising with COVID-19. She is required to wear disposable booties (cover your cough or sneeze) in every field she enters, clean and sanitize any equipment (disinfect surfaces) used between fields, and her vehicle (travel restrictions) never enters the field. The new normal.

“With soil-borne plant diseases, it does not matter the crop at the time, they can remain in the soil waiting for a host crop to continue on their life cycle,” said Cornelsen.

She also said clubroot resting spores can survive through the digestive tract of animals and be distributed through manure, although this does not pose near the risk that direct transmission does.

Knowing the current risk, whether it be COVID-19 or specific crop disease in the immediate area, is also crucial to protecting yourself and your crops.

“Producers should be in communication with neighbours and retailers of the area to be aware of the presence of some of these soil-borne pathogens, and resistant weed species to keep an eye in their own field for them,” Cornelsen said.

“For example, knowing that clubroot is in the area should change some of the management practices used by producers within the area, like deploying a clubroot-resistant cultivar.”

Like with the coronavirus, the risk of being infected with pathogens like clubroot is relatively low in this area, but it still exists.

“Clubroot spores exist in our soils, but at extremely low levels with no plant symptoms from the disease being reported within the area to date,” Cornelsen said. “Clubroot and soybean cyst nematode have only been confirmed in a few RMs across Manitoba.”

However, like COVID-19, crop pathogens do mutate and develop resistance meaning continuing education is required to stay on top of new developments.

In summary, the same rules apply to dealing with the spread of crop disease as COVID-19.

Know the risk – is it in my area? If so, take extra precautions to protect yourself and your crop. If you knew your friend, neighbour or family member had COVID-19 or clubroot, you’d probably be more diligent at taking precautions.

Minimize the risk

Wash your hands, use hand sanitizer, disinfect surfaces and don’t touch your face equals wash your equipment between fields (especially if the incidence is high in your area) or at least try to remove soil clumps paying special attention at field approaches (mouth, eyes, nose). Perhaps you’ve recently bought a piece of equipment. How do you know for sure where the equipment has been and if it’s been exposed? Take the precaution and make sure it’s clean.

Practise physical distancing = practise crop rotation by eliminating the host (crop) for appropriate intervals to lessen the risk of transmission.

Proactive screening (especially if you have travelled or been in contact) = regular scouting either by yourself or a qualified individual who is following the necessary precautions to prevent transmission like wearing booties.

Boost immunity/get vaccinated = especially if you know you’re in an area where a disease is prevalent, sow resistant varieties.

Stay home – wanting to give your neighbour a hand? Be sure to heed to advice above or you may end up being more of a hindrance than a help.

Follow the advice of professionals – like health-care workers, the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), is to COVID, your agronomist is also your source of information and guidance for crop disease. They are dealing with this every day and are there to help protect you. But they can’t do it alone; they need your help and compliance.

Disease is disease. No matter the species, it’s all relative and the same principles apply.

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