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"More than 600 million people could be fed each year by halting the spread of fungal diseases in the world's five most important crops, according to research published today in the journal Nature. Furthermore, data reviewed by scientists suggests that in 70% of cases where infectious disease causes the extinction of a type of animal or plant, an emerging species of fungus is behind the problem. Evidence suggests this figure is increasing. The scientists behind the study, from the University of Oxford, Imperial College London, and institutions in the US, are calling for new solutions to prevent the proliferation of existing and emerging fungal infections in plants and animals in order to prevent further loss of biodiversity and food shortages in the future. Fungal infections presently destroy at least 125 million tonnes of the top five food crops - rice, wheat, maize, potatoes and soybeans - each year, which could otherwise be used to feed those who do not get enough to eat. These crops provide the majority of calories consumed by people. The damage caused by fungi to rice, wheat and maize alone costs global agriculture $60 billion per year. The effects are disproportionately catastrophic for those in the developing world, where 1.4 billion people live on less than $1.25 per day, and rely most heavily on these low-cost foods...The authors calculated that fungal infection could damage of up to 900 million tonnes of food if disease epidemics were to hit all the top five food crops in the same year. Although the chances of this happening are very slight, they estimate that this scenario would cause a global famine leaving over 4.2 billion people starving. They are calling for tighter control of trade in plant and animal products that facilitate the spread of disease, and more research into tools that can predict emerging fungal infections so scientists can learn to halt the spread of existing diseases that are currently geographically isolated."

Posted April 11th, 2012
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