Xylella fastidiosa

Olive trees affected by the disease in the Italian province of Lecce in 2015.

On Sunday, we published the editorial, “Flu prevention,” from the Winston-Salem Journal that discussed how Australia’s severe flu season is a harbinger of a very sickly winter for the United States. As the editorial noted, despite being separated by thousands of miles and vast oceans, today international travel and commerce play a huge role in the spread of infectious diseases. Ever since man began to travel and trade, diseases such as the Black Death, the 1918 influenza outbreak and the HIV/AIDS pandemic have spread across continents, sometimes with catastrophic results.

It’s not just human populations that can be decimated by hitchhiking pathogens. The American elm tree was wiped out in 20 years after an American furniture company imported logs from France infected with Dutch elm disease. Diseases such as avian flu that are imported to other countries from their points of origin often pose threats to world food supplies. In the past few years, two diseases have emerged that are significantly impacting global dietary staples.

African swine fever (AFS) is a fatal hemorrhagic disease devastating the pork industry in parts of Europe and East Asia. Pork is the most widely consumed meat in the world, and China produces and consumes nearly half of it. By year’s end, that country’s production is projected to be down more than 60%, according to the firm Global AgriTrends. Cambodia, Vietnam and other Asian nations have had to cull millions of hogs. North Korea claims the disease has skipped over its pigs, but unofficial reports say the disease is out of control in the communist nation. Since June 2018, the virus has been found in 36 countries on three continents.

Analysts predict should it continue unabated, AFS is likely to produce a protein gap in Asia that the world will be unable to fill. Pork prices have skyrocketed there and forecasters say higher prices could soon reach the U.S. Higher prices we can live with — AFS we can’t. It’s good to know that U.S. policy forbids the import of pork from any nation impacted by the disease, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other federal agencies are working diligently to ensure our pork supply remains safe.

Nearly as concerning as AFS is a rapidly spreading bacterial pathogen that has destroyed millions of olive trees throughout the Mediterranean and Europe. Xylella fastidiosa has turned vast groves of centuries-old trees into desiccated stumps. The disease, spread primarily through small insects that feed on tree sap, was first detected in Italy in 2013 and has destroyed more than 10 million olive trees there. It has spread to France, Spain and Portugal. In June 2019, infected olive trees were discovered in Israel, marking the pathogen’s arrival in the Middle East.

As the world becomes ever more interconnected, we fervently hope that officials worldwide remain diligent to the presence of pests and diseases that can easily be transported between countries, potentially causing great agricultural losses and endangering global food supplies.

— Robin Beres

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