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How is climate change affecting crop pests and diseases?

The dynamics of crop diseases and pest influx are changing rapidly due to changing climate. Managing them has, therefore, become a huge challenge

Last Updated: Wednesday 08 June 2016 | 11:52:46 AM

Formation of farming cooperatives is the only way to consolidate the small holdings to facilitate integrated management of pests and diseases

The rising levels of CO2 and temperatures are having direct effect on pests and diseases in crops. But will the overall effect be negative or positive? This is a question yet to be answered.

More CO2, increase in pests and diseases

Elevated CO2 can increase levels of simple sugars in leaves and lower their nitrogen content. These can increase the damage caused by many insects, who will consume more leaves to meet their metabolic requirements of nitrogen. Thus, any attack will be more severe. Higher temperatures from global warming, mainly due to elevated CO2, will mean that more numbers of pests will survive the winter season. Elevated CO2 will help in easier over-wintering of pathogens while higher temperatures will favour thermophilic fungi . Higher temperatures will lead to a poleward spread of many pests and diseases in both hemispheres. This will lead to more attacks over longer periods in the temperate climatic zone

Other possible effects of climate change need to be taken into account. On one hand, warmer temperature lowers the effectiveness of some pesticides but on the other hand, it favours insect carriers of many disease pathogens and natural enemies of pests and diseases. Thus, depending on the pest or pathogen, elevated CO2 may act in a synergic or opposing manner with higher temperatures. Results of such interactions are difficult to be anticipated. Thus, one is obliged to wait for visual signs of appearance of a pest or disease for initiating action.

Elevated CO2 levels and higher temperatures will keep changing the composition and duration of infective stages of pests and diseases. The current agromet models for anticipation and control of crop pests and diseases will thus be ineffective.

When to initiate action?

As mentioned above, elevated carbon dioxide and higher temperature may act in a synergic or opposing manner depending on the pest or pathogen concerned. The result of these changes cannot be foreseen as yet and waiting for visual appearance of a pest or disease to initiate action, is the only remaining option. Organising manual surveys to cover all major crop pests and diseases will be a very costly and nearly impossible.

Under these circumstances, spore and insect trap data can assist in anticipating incidences of pests and diseases. A network spore and insect trapping centres to cover all major irrigated and rainfed crops and their pests and diseases needs to be set up. To ensure the network covers major irrigated crops with minimum stations, delineated homogenous rainfall zones and crop-climate zones need to be taken into account.

Summation of the mean air temperatures above a specified base value, known as accumulated degree-days, has been useful for anticipating the incidence of many crop pests and diseases. To overcome the unsuitability of calendar dates to begin calculations, the concept of Biofix is used. For a pest or a disease, Biofix date can mark the beginning of sustained trappimg of insects or disease spores.

It is crucial to measure the Economic Threshold Level (ETL)—the insect density at which control operations must begin to prevent crop loss from exceeding the cost of control operations. Economic Injury Level (EIL) is the insect density at which crop loss is more than the cost of control operations and varies with pests, crops and their growth stages. It is recommended to be taken as 75% of EIL.

Similarly in case of diseases, it is important to note the Critical Disease Level (CDL)—the point in time before which application of fungicides is not required and after which will be ineffective. Thus, for integrated management of pests and diseases using spore and insect trap data, it is necessary to laydown ETL and CDL criteria for important crop pests and diseases respectively.

Even within a season, there are variations in severity of pests and diseases. Thus, mid-seasonal advisories for resuming control action may be needed. In the case of some diseases, the above problem is sought to be overcome through the concept of Disease Severity Value, DSV.  In this, after a specified initial period, DSVs are commenced to be accumulated as per a formula and each day a DSV is calculated.  The ratings are accumulated to a threshold value that calls for initiation of action. After the action, DSV is set to zero and the accumulations commenced till they reach an assigned value calling for another spray and the process is repeated till end of the crop period. If adequate data is available, similar concept of Pest Severity Value, PSV can be developed.  PSV values for important crop pests need to be developed. In perennial orchards the trees are attacked by more than one generation of a pest. Thus, after fixing the first Biofix date and criterion for initial spraying of pesticide, a watch must be kept for increase in number of trap catches to fix subsequent Biofix dates and spraying criteria

The increase in temperatures will be more at night than during daytime. Higher nocturnal temperature will reduce the duration of Leaf-Wetness and result in lesser disease incidence. Biological control of a pest or disease through introduction of their natural enemies from other regions will become more effective. Warm temperatures will favour their quick establishment and development.

Forewarnings based on current crop position and expected weather are most effective when there is a time lag between the onset of favourable conditions and the manifestation of pest or disease affliction. Secondly, an initial inoculum is detected in insect or spore traps and the organism's phenological development is amenable to calculation by the accumulated degree days approach above a base value. The effectiveness of forewarnings of pests and diseases is maximal over large mono-cropped areas and minimal in situations of variegated cropping.

In India, most of the farm holdings are not only small but are also fragmented. Formation of farming cooperatives is the only way to consolidate the small holdings to facilitate integrated management of pests and diseases. The governments should act as facilitators in providing incentives for formation of farming cooperatives. It should also remove legal bottlenecks that hamper formation of cooperative farms and train farmers in cooperative crop management.

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IEP Resources:

A district level assessment of vulnerability of Indian agriculture to climate change

A system’s approach to assess the exposure of agricultural production to climate change and variability

Question raised in Rajya Sabha on impact of climate change on agriculture, 13/03/2015

Impact of global climate change on agriculture and allied sectors in India: Standing Committee on Agriculture (2008-09)

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