Melon Fruit Fly Management Webinar – Wednesday, December 16th, 2020

Aloha Dear Growers,

You are invited to participate in this free webinar event.

This webinar is open to all growers on Maui County and it will cover:
– Melon fly monitoring
– Roosting host areas
– Control strategies and
– New pesticides

Wednesday, December 16th, 2020, 4:00 PM-5:00 PM

Robin Shimabuku
Kylie Tavares
Rosemary Gutierrez-Coarite

RSVP to Rosemary by emailing to

Please CLICK to download the flyer.

Best Regards

Rosemary Gutierrez-Coarite Ph.D.
Assistant Extension Agent, Edible Crops
Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Science
UH CTAHR Maui Cooperative Extension Service
310 Kaahumanu Ave., Bldg. 214 Kahului, HI 96732
808-244-3242 ext. 232
” No task is too big when done together by all”

UH develop rapid test to detect bacterial wilt in Guam

University of Hawai’i News

Bacteria wilt is a problem affecting numerous trees in Guam. Under a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa assistant researcher and graduate students have helped to develop tests to rapidly distinguish the bacterial strain attacking the plants.

The USDA’s Priority Pest List for 2021 includes Ralstonia solanacearum race 3 biovar 2, a bacterium better known as a bacterial wilt. It infects through the roots and is deadly to plants, and is the subject of new grant funding for the University of Guam under the USDA’s Plant Protection Act.

Assisting with the characterization of Guam’s bacterial wilt strains are Mohammad Arif of UH Mānoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources Department of Plant and Environmental Protection Sciences and graduate students Sujan Paudel, Dario Arizala and Diksha Klair. Paudel and Shefali Dobhal recently developed rapid assay tests that can accurately and quickly distinguish the race 3 biovar 2 strain from the R. solanacearum species complex.

“With these diagnostic assays in hand, we can rapidly detect the bacteria directly from crude host tissue sap. We are now responsible for understanding how bacteria interact inside the host tissues, as well as mapping out endophytic communities associated with ironwood decline through microbiome studies,” said Arif.

“We’ll also study genetic variability among Ralstonia strains found associated with ironwood decline, and how this bacteria has evolved,” he added. “These objectives will enhance our understanding of this pathogen and disease, toward the development of effective disease-management strategies.”

Plant containment greenhouse to safeguard Hawaii plant imports

horti daily

After 2.5 years of planning and construction, the statewide Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers (HTFG) boasts a new state-of-the-art containment greenhouse. Approved by the Hawaii Dept. of Agriculture (HDOA) last week, the facility is situated in South Kona.

The $263K greenhouse, funded mainly by the state’s Grants-in-Aid program, will provide fruit growers with insect and disease-free plant resources imported from around the world.

“The greenhouse enables us to bring in, effectively isolate and safely propagate fruit we believe will be productive in Hawaii,” explains Mark Suiso, HTFG president. “Hawaii did not evolve naturally with fruit. This facility has technology that will allow us to efficiently introduce desired plants and evaluate them to assure they can safely be released and grown in our state.”

To ensure introduced plants don’t bring in any unintended problems, the 30 X 30-foot greenhouse is surrounded by a five-inch moat and 15-foot concrete barrier and further secured by an electric fence and security system. Specialized USDA-approved micro screen walls will prevent any insects from gaining access and limited staff entry to the greenhouse is through double doors. A solid, specialized plastic roof tops the greenhouse and interior halls between the greenhouse’s eight rooms are blackened with insect traps in each room and hallway.

Ken Love, HTFG executive director, says greenhouse waste water will be treated with bleach before released into a holding tank and finally a septic system. “There is always a concern that water passing through growing media could contain bacteria that might have been missed in the initial plant inspections,” he details. “The bleach treatment will kill any bacteria or virus that travels from the dirt to the drains and into the holding tank.”

According to Love, all chosen imported plants will go through five stages of inspection: by HTFG on-site at exporting farm, by country of origin’s Dept. of Agriculture, by USDA upon arrival in Honolulu, by HDOA in Honolulu, and finally by HTFG before entering greenhouse. Imported plant stock will arrive as small, bare-root trees or cuttings.

Once the seedlings are received at the Kona greenhouse, they will be potted in a sterile and organic nursery mix.

HTFG members will decide what plants to import and clone and they will be quarantined in the 900-square-foot greenhouse over a two-year period before released. The project’s six rooms can each hold about 1,000 trees and two, small tube pot rooms can hold up to 4,000 seedlings.

Love shares virtually unknown fruit like sweet-sour tampoi has “great economic potential” for Hawaii growers as does the creamy, sweet and savory durian, which can currently be exported from Hawaii to the U.S. Mainland.

“We have already arranged to bring in 500 hachiya persimmons from Japan and 1,000 durian from the Philippines,” adds Love. “Other trees are being grown out for us in Borneo, Queensland and India.”

In addition, the specialized containment greenhouse enables HTFG to apply for a specialized Controlled Import Permit to bring in new varieties of citrus and mango. This more restrictive permit is required as Hawaii is already growing citrus and mango and prevention of introducing new pathogens to existing crops is crucial.

Once plants are settled in the greenhouse, smart monitoring systems will result in little interaction between plants and people as the goal is to minimize exposure between the confines of the greenhouse and the outside world.

To nurture seedlings in a controlled setting, the greenhouse has a timed irrigation system that controls misting, fogging and spraying to mimic ideal growing conditions, including those of the equatorial rainforest. Each growing room has Wi-Fi sensors for monitoring and recording temperature and humidity readings.

“The precise production of desired growing conditions will produce healthier plants more quickly,” notes Love. “This includes cuttings from most citrus, Chou ume plum and any desired local plants like those in the mountain apple family.”

The new greenhouse is a sister project to HTFG’s existing statewide fruit tree repositories where trees are available for sharing among organization members, plus to the public at periodic sales. Love says distribution of the greenhouse’s resources will be similar.

“Ultimately, we want to see a diverse selection of fruit grown productively throughout the state and with little dependence on importing it from outside the state,” adds Suiso.

“HTFG especially appreciates the funding efforts of state legislators Mike Gabbard, Richard Creagan, Donovan Dela Cruz and Nicole Lowen. Mahalo to Phyllis Shimabukuro-Geiser, Sharon Hurd, Lance Sakaino and Clare Okumoto of the HDOA; Mike Scharf, Matthew Goo, Peter Follett and Dorothy Alontaga of the USDA; Dr. Robert Paull and Andrea Kawabata of the University of Hawaii; and Kenneth and Ader Takaki of Ken’s Masonry, Mark Dixon Construction and Diamond Sprinklers.”

“Thanks also to HTFG members statewide, especially Brian Lievens, Greg Garriss, Chuck Cope, Shinobu Doucette and Xavier Chung.”

For more information:
Ken Love
HTFG President Mark Suiso

Coffee Leaf Rust Webinar

Coffee Leaf Rust Webinar
Thursday, November 19, 2020

This webinar is provided as a free resource for our association members and the broader community. It is designed to provide important updates on the Coffee Leaf Rust disease recently discovered in Hawaii. The webinar will consist of two sessions and have a Q&A session at the end of each.

The webinar will have two sessions. Please see the schedule below and register for each session individually.

IMPORTANT: Please ensure you are notifying all farm staff, including seasonal pickers who may work on multiple farms, of new sanitation protocol to mitigate the spread of this fungus. We also encourage you to share this webinar information with your farm staff.

Webinar Schedule
Thursday, November 19

Short Term Strategies
with Jacques Avelino of CIRAD* and Andrea Kawabata of University of Hawaii CTAHR

Jacques will discuss the biology of the causal agent of coffee leaf rust: the fungus Hemileia vastatrix and some epidemiological considerations. He will explain how meteorological variables, topography, coffee tree characteristics, natural enemies and management, particularly nutrition and shade, affect coffee rust development. This knowledge can be used to improve coffee rust management at farm and regional levels.

Andrea will provide updated information on approved fungicides for coffee in Hawai’i to help combat Coffee Leaf Rust, including application protocol. She will also cover necessary general farm practices, hygiene, and sanitation protocol that producers should be implementing on their farms immediately to avoid spreading CLR spores.

*CIRAD is the French agricultural research and international cooperation organization working for the sustainable development of tropical and Mediterranean regions.

Register for the Short Term Strategy Session

Research, Resources & Regulation
with Kevin Hoffman of HDOA and Lisa Keith of USDA and PBARC

Kevin will provide an update to attendees on the most current information available to HDOA including new quarantine restrictions.

Lisa will focus on the pathology of coffee leaf rust in Hawaii, including what we know, what we don’t know, and short and long term research efforts to manage CLR in Hawaii.

Register for the Research, Resources & Regulation Session


State of Hawaii Department of Agriculture

HONOLULU – Coffee leaf rust (CLR) has been confirmed on coffee plants on Hawai`i Island by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Identification Services. The samples were collected by a grower on a farm in the Holualoa area, south of Kailua-Kona, on Hawai`i Island on October 31, 2020. Samples from Hilo, mentioned in an earlier news release, were negative for CLR. Earlier in October, CLR was detected and confirmed in the Haiku area of Maui. CLR has not been detected on other islands.

CLR is one of the most devastating pests of coffee plants and is established in all major coffee-growing areas of the world, but had not previously been found in Hawai`i prior to its recent discovery on Maui and Hawai`i Island.

“Coffee is one of Hawai`i’s signature crops, of which production was estimated to be $54.3 million in 2019,” said Phyllis Shimabukuro-Geiser, chairperson of the Hawai`i Board of Agriculture. “As surveys continue across the state, the Hawai`i Department of Agriculture is preparing to establish interim rules that will hopefully prevent the spread of the fungus to uninfested islands.”

The Hawai`i Department of Agriculture (HDOA) Advisory Committee on Plant and Animals has scheduled a meeting on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020 at 1:30 p.m. to consider an interim rule to restrict the movement of coffee plants and coffee plant material from islands found to have CLR to islands on which the fungus has not been detected. Information on the meeting via Zoom is available at:

CLR can cause severe defoliation of coffee plants. Infected leaves drop prematurely, greatly reducing the plant’s photosynthetic capacity. Vegetative and berry growth are reduced depending on the intensity of rust in the current year. Long-term effects of rust may include dieback, which can have a significant impact on the following year’s yield, with some researchers estimating losses between 30 percent and 80 percent.

The first observable symptoms are yellow-orange rust spots, appearing on the upper surface of leaves. On the underside of the leaves, infectious spores appear resembling a patch of yellow- to dark orange-colored powder. These young lesions steadily increase in size with the center of the lesion turning necrotic and brown, with the infection eventually progressing up the tree. CLR may also infect young stems and berries.

HDOA’s Plant Pest Control Branch has prepared a field guide to aid in the detection and reporting of possible CLR infections. The field guide maybe found at:

While there are fungicides that may be used to help control the fungus, one of the key factors to any pest management program is good sanitation practices. Regular pruning and training of the coffee tree helps to prevent over-cropping and maintain a healthy field. These practices help to improve air circulation and also to open up the canopy to allow proper fungicide spray coverage. Good weed control is an important factor as it keeps competition for vital nutrients low, thereby reducing the susceptibility to the rust.

CLR, Hemileia vastatrix, was first discovered in Sri Lanka in 1869 and is now found in the major coffee-growing regions of the world, including Southeast Asia, Africa, and Central and South America.

Hawai`i has strict importation rules requiring all imported green coffee beans for roasting and associated packing materials be fumigated prior to entering the state to ensure beans are free of pathogens and insect pests. These rules also subject coffee plants and propagative plant parts to strict quarantine requirements if imported to Hawai`i, including a quarantine on all imported coffee plants for a minimum of one year in a state-run quarantine facility.

To report possible coffee leaf rust infestations on any island, call HDOA’s Plant Pest Control Branch at (808) 973-9525.

For more information on coffee leaf rust go to the UH-CTAHR webpages at:

Or, the HDOA Field Guide at:

Coffee Rust Is Going to Ruin Your Morning

The Atlantic
Story by Maryn McKenna

In the southern corner of Guatemala, outside the tiny mountain town of San Pedro Yepocapa, Elmer Gabriel’s coffee plants ought to be leafed-out and gleaming. It is a week before Christmas, the heart of the coffee-harvesting season, and if his bushes were healthy, they would look like holiday trees hung with ornaments, studded with bright-red coffee cherries. But in a long row that stretches down the side of his steeply sloped field, the plants are twiggy and withered. Most of their leaves are gone, and the ones that remain are drab olive and curling at the edges. There are yellow spots, brown in the center, on the leaves’ upper surfaces. On the underside they are pebbly, and coated with a fine orange dust.

The dust looks like rust on a piece of steel, and that is how it got its name: The plants are infected with coffee-leaf rust, a devastating fungus. Gabriel recognized the problem as soon as he saw it. The rust, la roya in Spanish, arrived almost a decade ago, at about the time he bought the hilltop parcel he calls Finca La Felicidad, the “farm of happiness.” He knew about it from his childhood: His father had been a coffee farmer too, and in the 1970s the rust had come and parched their plants. His father sprayed the plants with fungicides, and the disease retreated. Gabriel did the same when the rust returned and flecked the bushes of La Felicidad a decade ago, and the disease retreated again.

But now the fungicides were no longer working as they had. “La roya does not respect them,” Gabriel told me through a translator. One day, with no warning, the golden dots bloomed on a few leaves on a single plant. Gabriel sprayed them, and sprayed again, but the spots widened, then turned dark and dry and cracked through the middle. The leaves crisped, curling at the edges, and fell from the plant when breezes jostled them. The dust, the fungal spores, drifted across the field and infected another bush, or fell to the ground and splashed onto the next plant when rain fell. The cycle of slow plant death began again.

Gabriel shrugged in discomfort, and the polo shirt he wore bunched under his ears. “I thought it would go away after a year or two, the way it had before,” he said. “But it’s totally infested … And in spite of using fungicides, it seems like it’s not enough.”

With no leaves, the plants did not have the energy to bloom and set their fruits, the brilliant fleshy cherries that hide coffee beans at their core. With no fruits, there was no crop, and no income to buy better fungicides or replace the dying plants with healthy ones. In the lesions freckling his coffee plants, Gabriel glimpsed the end of his livelihood, and the death of his hope that he could pass down his land and his knowledge to his son.

In that anguish, Gabriel is not alone. In tens of thousands of small farms across Central and South America, coffee plants are stumbling under the assault of rust. In some areas, more than half of the acreage devoted to coffee has ceased producing. From 2012 to 2017, rust caused more than $3 billion in damage and lost profits and forced almost 2 million farmers off their land.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, talking about a plant disease might seem frivolous. But around the world, 100 million people draw dignity and income from coffee, one of the world’s most traded agricultural products. Coffee is a lifeline for tiny towns and small farmers in areas too thin-soiled or forested or steep to grow much else.

As farmers run out of cash to combat coffee-leaf rust—and climate change diminishes the likelihood of relocating plants to safer ground—scientists are trying to blunt the power of the disease. But their efforts to rebreed plants and retrain farmers are up against a long history of ruin: The first caution about the disease, and the first proof of its destructive force, dates back more than 150 years.

On november 6, 1869, a short notice appeared in a British publication, The Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, describing a plant pathogen that no one had seen before. “We have recently received … a specimen of a minute fungus which has caused some consternation amongst the coffee planters in Ceylon, in consequence of the rapid progress it seems to be making among the coffee plants,” the note read.

Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, was a colonial possession, controlled by the United Kingdom since 1815. Dutch traders had imported coffee to Ceylon, and the British had made the plant the basis of a plantation system and trade empire. The colony produced more coffee than anywhere else in the world. Just ten years after the notice in The Gardeners’ Chronicle, all of it was gone.

“A horrible, devastating epidemic—90 percent, 100 percent crop loss,” Mary Catherine Aime told me. She is a professor of botany and plant pathology at Purdue University and the director of its plant and fungal collections. “And ever since, we’ve been moving coffee around the world to keep it away from the disease.”

By the end of the 19th century, rust had crushed coffee cultivation in South and East Asia. The colonial plantations of Ceylon were replanted with tea, turning the British into tea drinkers; those of Indonesia and Malaysia with rubber trees from seeds smuggled out of Brazil by a British explorer. Coffee growing moved across the Atlantic. In a 1952 map made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a dark dotted line divides the world at the Prime Meridian. Everything to the east—sub-Saharan Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, India, Ceylon, Indonesia, and Polynesia—is labeled “Diseased” in block letters. Everything to the west—Central and South American mountain ranges whose climates mimicked those of the cool, high areas where coffee once had thrived—is assertively titled “Not Diseased.”

It was confidently assumed that coffee rust could not cross the cordon sanitaire of the Atlantic. That was wrong. No one can say how rust came to the Americas. It might have arrived in shipments of other plants, living or dried. It might have clung to the shoes or clothes of travelers. It is even possible that rust crossed the planet on high-altitude winds, the route that another plant disease, wheat-stem rust, has used to spread between continents. Coffee rust moved without detection, and then, in 1970, its telltale spots and spore-laden dust appeared on coffee plants in Brazil. It spread quickly west and then north: to Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and then up through Central America—the first wave, which Gabriel remembered from his father’s time. The disease was fierce, but when it appeared, lavish applications of fungicide and careful management of plants kept it in check.

Then, in 2008, rust flared up in Colombia as devastatingly as it had in Asia 150 years earlier, and by 2012 it had moved into Central America. As it had in Ceylon, it wiped out entire farms.

Aime is a world-renowned expert on rust fungi, one of a small number of mycologists tackling a huge field: There are about 8,000 known species of rusts, more than all the other plant pathogens put together. She has been responsible for identifying an array of new rust species, and ever since coffee-leaf rust surged in Latin America, she has been bending her expertise to understanding why. What could have allowed a low-incidence disease kept under control by agricultural chemicals to escape that control and launch an apocalyptic onslaught?

At first, she and other researchers wondered whether coffee rust had mutated, changing its genetic makeup enough to make it a more virulent organism. But in her research, Aime has been building what is effectively a genetic atlas of coffee-leaf rust, made up of genomic analyses of thousands of fungal samples. In those data, she could identify no dramatic change in coffee rust’s composition. “What we think we’re dealing with,” she said, “is the effects of climate change.”

What happened, she concluded, is that changing weather—more heat, more intense rain, higher persistent humidity—created conditions that made coffee farms more hospitable hosts. In 2012, temperatures across Central America were higher than average; rainfall was erratic and drenching. Together, those phenomena allowed the rust to cycle more rapidly through its reproductive process: infecting the leaves of a plant, generating spores, releasing the spores, and finding a new plant on which to grow. “It’s not a simple mathematical formula,” Aime said. “It’s an exponential increase.”

In San Pedro Yepocapa, I asked Gabriel whether he had thought about why the rust had grown worse. He looked at me with the polite patience farmers reserve for city dwellers.

“The rains have been heavier,” he said. “The dry season, it’s longer, and the winds are much more strong.” He shrugged again, as though the answer ought to be obvious. “It’s due to climate change.”

The pandemic of coffee rust is like the unfolding pandemic of the coronavirus in so many ways. There were warnings. There was a belief that the Americas would not suffer. There was a confidence that existing tools could manage the threat. But the deepest similarity may be that, as with the coronavirus, the burden of each disease falls hardest on those least able to afford it. For the coronavirus, that is city dwellers with little savings and no second home to flee to, reliant on mass transit to get to work to feed their family. For coffee rust, it is the farmers.

More than 90 percent of the coffee in the world comes from small farms in poor economies: properties owned or rented by a single family, planted with a single crop. Meanwhile, the wholesale price of coffee has collapsed, forcing farmers and their families to seek jobs outside their farms at just the moment when their farms need more labor to handle the intensification of rust.

There’s a parallel control strategy to spraying rust to suppress its efflorescence. That is finding coffee varieties that possess some intrinsic resistance to the pathogen and crossbreeding them to produce new varieties that are less vulnerable to the disease. To see that approach’s potential, you only have to walk to the other side of Gabriel’s field. The plants there are thick with branches, glossy with health, studded with bright, heavy cherries. Rodrigo Chávez, a tall man in a crisp shirt, crouched and rubbed a leaf gently, looking for the telltale spots. Gabriel spoke with him excitedly in Spanish, waving his hands.

“He’s calling it a supermarket,” Chávez told me. “You can see here where the flowers are forming; that is next year’s crop. He’s very happy that the crop looks so good, that it’s going to give him a higher income.” Chávez dusted off his hands and stood up, looking over more rows resembling the bush we stood next to. “He’s especially happy because he didn’t have to spray these plants,” Chávez went on. “So he spent less money to manage them, and he’s going to have more coming in.”

Chávez was part of the reason healthy plants were in the same field as the rust-stricken ones. He is a project director at the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture, at Texas A&M University. The institute operates the Resilient Coffee in Central America program, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, to bring rust-resistant hybrids to farmers—actually to farmers, not just to test plots at research stations. For three years, the members of the team—Chávez and Roger Norton, the regional director of the project, in Texas, and Luis Alberto Cuellar Gomez, Oscar Ramos, and Daniel Dubon in El Salvador—have been trekking through Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, armed with educational materials and plants. They have persuaded more than 100 small farmers to plant samples of new coffees alongside their established plants, and to observe and relay back to the team how the new plants react to the unpredictable conditions that climate change has wrought.

The plants that the team brings to the farmers are complex mixtures of coffee genetics produced by research organizations, known by acronyms such as CIRAD in France, CATIE in Costa Rica, and IHCAFE in Honduras, that collaborate across the globe. They are what remain of a powerful network of national coffee institutes sponsored by governments and international philanthropies such as the Rockefeller Foundation during the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, when Norman Borlaug, the Texas institute’s namesake, was staving off international famine by breeding rust resistance into wheat. Those research institutes and others produced many of the plants growing in Latin American fields now, varieties that were bred specifically to be resistant to rust once it crossed the Atlantic.

The decades since that first flowering of international agricultural cooperation have forced a reevaluation of Borlaug’s legacy: His high-productivity hybrids fed millions, but their need for water and external nutrition drove dam construction, groundwater mining, and huge increases in fertilizer use. The last quarter of the 20th century wasn’t kind to the coffee institutes either. Big countries such as Brazil were able to keep their national research programs going. But in smaller countries, civil unrest and crashing economies forced governments to make hard decisions about where to spend limited revenue. That shortfall in funding starved farmers of scientific support at just the moment when rust began regaining ground.

“That original generation of rust-resistant varieties that were created in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s are starting to lose their resistance,” says Jennifer “Vern” Long, the CEO of a global R&D nonprofit called World Coffee Research. “It will take some time for all of them to fail, but the process has begun.” Farmers who depended on that inbred resistance to protect their crops must now buy and apply more chemicals, and put in more labor to monitor their fields, she adds: “The cost of managing a farm that way is much higher.”

World Coffee Research and the Texas institute, with its USAID backing, represent a kind of reconstitution of the research infrastructure that spread across the world in Borlaug’s era. They have partnered with interested corporations: The Texas group with the Swiss multinational Nestlé, which may be the world’s largest buyer of coffee, and the Norwegian fertilizer company Yara; and World Coffee Research with many of the largest coffee retailers, including Starbucks, Lavazza, Jacobs Douwe Egberts, and the corporate parent of Folgers. In contrast with the Texas group, World Coffee Research also supports lab work, including Aime’s genomic analyses.

It is research that can’t be hurried—even though global warming is changing the weather right now—because developing new coffee varieties that reproduce reliably takes decades. And the researchers’ goals and the farmers’ complex needs are in competition. The farmers want to still trust the plants they have grown for years, even though those coffees are failing. The scientists want to develop resilient plants quickly, even understanding that adoption may take time.

It can take 25 years to crossbreed coffee plants into a new type, and to test-grow the new plant through repeated generations to make sure it breeds true. The farmers in places where rust is advancing don’t have that kind of time. To accelerate replacement, World Coffee Research has been supporting development of what are called F1 hybrids, first-generation crosses from genetically distinct parents that can be ready for planting in fields within 10 years.

There’s a catch, though. While hybrids grow with great vigor, they reproduce unpredictably—so the only way to replace a plant with an identical plant is to buy one from a nursery or company, not to grow it from the original plant’s own seed. That means the hybrids being developed now will need to be replaced by fresh purchases when they reach the end of their productive life, some 20 years in the future.

That will be a burden on the farmers, if it comes to pass. But World Coffee Research sees hybrids as part of a long-term strategy—and Aime’s work in finding the molecular markers of productivity and resistance could lead to entirely new varieties of coffee plants. Meanwhile, though, accelerating the timeline of getting better coffee into farmers’ fields is crucial, because the economic crunch of low prices, worsening rust, and weird weather is bearing down on coffee fields.

“A lot of farmers are surviving by essentially consuming their own resources,” Norton, of Texas A&M University, told me. “They’re not putting a monetary value on their family’s labor.”

Faced with withered plants and no income to pay for replanting, families who have grown coffee for generations walk away from their fields. In many cases, they walk north. When migrants were apprehended crossing the U.S.-Mexico border from October 2018 to May 2019, Guatemala was the point of origin for most.

The Texas A&M project hopes to keep farmers from having to make that choice. But finding which new hybrids and varieties fit different fields demands granular study—by the farmers and the researchers working with them—of the intricacies of tiny ecosystems. At the same time, the researchers are teaching farmers how best to maintain the new plants, and helping them identify additional crops, such as lemongrass, that could be grown among the coffee plants for extra income. Already, Norton said, they were hearing from producers who had visited the demonstration plots, seeing for themselves how their neighbors had benefited from the new hybrids, the free fertilizer, and the experts’ advice. They were clamoring to plant the new versions themselves.

How long the plants will help may be an open question, though. An hour’s drive from La Felicidad, Luis Pedro Zelaya Zamora, the fourth generation of his family to lead the coffee producer Bella Vista, described to me the relentless advance of both climate change and rust.

“Of course, la roya has been here since the 1980s,” he said, “but it never went higher up the mountains than 1,000 meters. And then, maybe eight years ago, you started seeing it at 1,200 meters, and then 1,500, 1,600, 1,800. And every year it came up higher, until it got everywhere. And since then, it has been very aggressive.”

Bella Vista means “beautiful view,” and that is an accurate description: A symmetrical volcanic cone rises above the family’s fields. From the veranda outside the farm’s offices, you can see the elegant curve of the caldera at its summit. The view is a reminder: At some point, mountains end. If the only way to escape climate change is to move crops to higher altitudes, at some point altitude runs out.

Zelaya also has given some of his property over to testing hybrids that the Texas project has distributed. The squeeze between disease and temperature has made clear to him the urgency of identifying the most rust-resistant, resilient, high-yielding plants they can grow. Handling rust costs the equivalent of one-fifth of his production per hectare, Zelaya estimated. “The only way you can pay the cost is with high productivity,” he said. “If you have low productivity, it will wipe you out.”

The hybrids’ genetic diversity is intended to slow the advance of a disease fueled by climate change, but climate change is threatening the source of that diversity.

One reason coffee is so vulnerable to the danger of rust, and to the challenges of unpredictable weather that make rust’s attack more likely, is that its genetics are narrow. It isn’t quite a monocrop—not like bananas, for instance, which worldwide are clones of one another, and could be wiped out by a single disease. (In fact, the bananas we eat today, called Cavendish, were developed because a sweeter variety, the Gros Michel, was wiped out by a fungal disease in the 1960s.) Still, coffee varieties are related closely enough—a possibly apocryphal story traces all coffee in the Americas to seedlings stolen from the Paris botanical gardens—that they lack the genetic diversity that could give them resilience to heat, drenching, or drought.

Those genes exist in coffee’s wild relatives, the grandparents and cousins of the cultivated varieties that farmers now grow. Almost all coffee producers grow just two species: arabica, highly vulnerable to rust, and robusta, less vulnerable but less tasty too. But more than 120 other species are surviving in the wild, in Africa, the Indian Ocean, and Asia. Not all of them have been studied, but the ones that have been harbor traits that cultivated coffee could make use of: tolerance to temperature swings, the ability to survive through drought, and reduced vulnerability to plant pests and diseases.

Except that, thanks to climate change, these wild relatives are under threat too.

Aaron Davis is a slight man with close-trimmed hair and a beard, and is the head of the coffee-research unit at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. A scientist from Kew first confirmed what was killing the coffee plantations of Ceylon in the late 1800s. Davis, his successor across scientific generations, has spent more than 20 years doing research wherever wild coffees grow, identifying coffee species and, in his later career, determining what qualities they might offer to the international coffee trade.

“There are coffees out there that will withstand significantly increased temperatures and reduced rainfalls,” he told me. I had tracked him down at a plant-diseases symposium at the University of Georgia, and we found a seat between posters explaining research on corn genomics and the variability of tomato shapes. “But we better hurry up and preserve those wild genetic resources, because they are disappearing really quickly.”

After more than a decade of hunting coffee species from Ethiopia to Madagascar, Davis turned to studying the plants’ climatic backdrop, looking at the weather and temperature in the areas where cultivated and wild plants grow, and asking how the plants would be affected if those metrics changed.

The Kew team combined the field research with computer modeling. The results were unnerving, indicating that the areas where coffee grows in the wild in Ethiopia—the plant’s historic home, and the place where it ought to grow best—will become inhospitable as temperatures rise and rain patterns change. Before the end of this century, according to the Kew study, 85 percent of the areas where wild arabica grows will no longer support it. Similar models applied to Ethiopian farms cultivating coffee predict that 60 percent of that land will no longer support the crop.

Last year, Davis and his collaborators estimated that under current climate-change scenarios, at least 60 percent of all species of coffee—the two on which production now depends, and many of their relatives as well—are at risk of going extinct..

There would be no remedying that loss. The genetic diversity contained in wild plants has the potential to boost cultivated coffee’s resilience to weather and climate change. That opportunity will vanish when they do, because only about half of the world’s known coffee species are represented in germplasm collections—archives of preserved tissue from which new plants can be propagated. If species die out before their germplasm can be preserved, their promise will be lost for good.

To test its findings, the Kew team trekked through the mountains of southwest Ethiopia, measuring conditions and talking with farmers in the areas where the models had predicted that coffee production would diminish and wild plants would be lost.

“The correspondence between what the farmers were saying and our modeling put goosebumps on our arms,” Davis told me. “They told us: Their father’s father had a good crop every year. Their father had a good crop every other year. Now they were getting a good crop every five years.”

What was true for the cultivated plants was even more true for the wild ones, he added. On one of his team’s trips, the researchers went to Sierra Leone, hunting for a wild coffee species recorded in the 20th century. The botanists who recorded it had noted qualities that might make it climate-resilient, and had noted that the coffee it produced was tasty too. The team hiked to the recorded locations, looking for forested areas that would cast the right amount of shade for the coffee to grow and not scorch in the sun. They struggled to find the coffee—or the trees that would have encouraged it to grow. “There was almost no forest left,” Davis said. “In 10 years’ time, there may not be any there.”

Listening to davis and aime, examining the diseased plants in farmers’ fields, I found it hard not to be pessimistic. Rust’s rampage across the globe had been relentless. With climate change reinforcing its power, its domination seemed inevitable—meaning small farmers like Gabriel would be crushed.

But Gabriel was not crushed. On the hill at the top of his farm, he seemed buoyantly hopeful. Standing in his field, between the withered old plants on one side and the verdant new growth on the other, I asked him what he thought the future might bring his farm. He thought for a minute, and then asked Chávez to translate.

“It is a blessing to have these,” Chávez said, translating. Gabriel gestured to the healthy plants rolling down the slope below us, glossy leaves shining, brilliant red coffee berries peeking between them. His neighbors had distrusted the new plants, he said. They assumed that the bushes had done so well because they were artificial, transgenic, GMO in some imaginary way. But Gabriel invited his neighbors over again and again, trying to show them that the bushes were thriving in the strong wind and uncertain rainfall, and were not succumbing to the disease that had threatened to destroy his farm. Eventually, he said, some of them started to believe.

Because the new bushes resisted la roya, he said, he could spend less money on fungicides. Because he needed to spray less often, he could spend less time mopping up the damage, and more time managing the plants so they would do well. For the first time in a while, he said, he felt as though his farm’s future might be stable. He felt so positive that he had given part of the farm to his son, Brian. They were about to start working together, to pull up all the vulnerable plants. They were going to plant all of La Felicidad with the resilient new hybrids instead.

Perhaps that was short-term thinking, the intense relief of a respite from an onslaught that threatened to ruin his family. Perhaps it was an expression of trust that science could keep improving the plants, outpacing the disease’s advance. I wanted to ask more questions, but Gabriel had to leave the farm. He was due at his job as a bus driver, a job that he might be able to relinquish if his new plants continue to do well. He smoothed his polo shirt and turned to go, and then turned back to deliver a final thought.

“He said, ‘The world changes, and we need to change with it,’” Chávez relayed.

Gabriel nodded, hard. For the first time since we met, he spoke in English, carefully. “No … fear … changes,” he said. He put the sentence together in his head, and spoke again. “Don’t fear change.”

Taro Leaf Blight—A Threat to Food Security

The Impact of Plant Disease on Food Security

by Davinder Singh, Danny Hunter, Robert Fullerton, Vincent Lebot, Mary Taylor, Tolo Iosefa, Tom Okpul, and Joy Tyson


Taro leaf blight (caused by the Oomycete Phytophthora colocasiae) is a disease of major importance in many regions of the world where taro is grown. Serious outbreaks of taro leaf blight in Samoa in 1993 and in the last few years in Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria continue to demonstrate the devastating impact of this disease on the livelihoods and food security of small farmers and rural communities dependent on the crop. The spread of the disease to new geographical areas also poses a major threat to neighbouring countries and taro growing regions still free from the disease. Past research, particularly in the Pacific, has demonstrated that management measures such as chemical and cultural control are largely ineffective and that breeding for disease resistance is the most sustainable approach to manage the disease. Recently, the Pacific and South-east Asian regional taro networks have made excellent progress in developing cultivars resistant to taro leaf blight through enhanced utilization of taro genetic resources and close collaboration between farmers and researchers in breeding programs. These programs have secured vital taro genetic resources for future use. This paper provides an overview of the disease, its origin, distribution, biology, epidemiology, management and global impact. The paper will largely focus on breeding strategies to address the disease including challenges, opportunities and constraints. It also discusses how these breeding experiences and outputs can be scaled up to other geographical areas where the disease has been recently introduced or under threat of introduction.

Keywords: taro; Colocasia esculenta; taro leaf bight; Phytophthora colocasiae; resistance breeding; networks

1. Introduction

Taro (Colocasiaesculenta) a clonally propagated aroid, is grown largely in humid tropical areas of the world. The crop, first domesticated in South-east Asia, has continued to spread throughout the world and is now an important crop in Asia, the Pacific, Africa and the Caribbean [1]. It is the most important edible species of the monocotyledonous family Araceae. Almost all parts of a taro plant are utilized; corms are baked, roasted, or boiled as a source of carbohydrates, leaves are frequently consumed as a vegetable representing an important source of vitamins, and even petioles and flowers are consumed in certain parts of the world. Worldwide, taro ranks fourteenth among staple vegetable crops with about 12 million tonnes produced globally from about 2 million hectares with an average yield of 6 t/ha [2]. Most of the global taro production comes from developing countries, characterized by smallholder production systems relying on minimum external resource inputs. This makes this food crop very important for food security, especially among subsistence farmers in developing countries.

Worldwide, it is believed that crop diseases reduce agricultural productivity by more than 10%, equivalent to half a billion tonnes of food every year [3]. The epidemics associated with these diseases reduce food availability, increase food prices and pose a danger to rural livelihoods and regional food security. According to Fisher et al. [4] more than 600M people could be fed each year by halting the spread of fungal diseases in the world’s five most important crops alone. The overwhelming impact of plant diseases on human societies and food security is well illustrated by the effect of late blight disease of potato, caused by the pathogen Phytophthora infestans in Ireland during the 1840s, at a time when potato was an important staple food for the majority of the population. The disease was one of the factors that led to mass starvation, death and migration. There have been numerous other plant disease epidemics throughout agricultural history that have resulted in a major socio-economic impact; for example, the epidemics caused by coffee rust (Hemileia vastatrix) in Sri Lanka (1890s), brown spot of rice (Cochliobolusmiyabeanus) in India (1940s), wheat stem rust (Puccinia graminis) in north America (1960s), rubber leaf blight (Microcyclus ulei) in Latin America (1910s), and downy mildew of grape (Plasmopara viticola) in Europe (1880s) [5].

The important but neglected taro crop is no exception and is subject to significant losses from diseases and pests. Taro is affected by at least 10 major diseases and pests in different parts of the world [6]. Of the various taro diseases, taro leaf blight (TLB) caused by the fungus-like Oomycete Phytophthora colocasiae Raciborski (P. colocasiae) is of prime importance because it can reduce corm yield by up to 50% [7,8,9,10] and leaf yield by 95% in susceptible varieties [11]. TLB can also deteriorate corm quality [12,13]. In addition to corm yield losses that occur as a consequence of the reduced leaf area [7] in diseased plants, a corm rot caused by P. colocasiae may also occur [5]. Under some circumstances the disease invades harvested corms and causes heavy losses during storage [14].

Repeated outbreaks of TLB in the South Pacific, South-east Asia and recently in West Africa have signalled the urgency to find sustainable solutions to the disease. If uncontrolled, TLB poses a grave threat to food security and loss of crop genetic diversity, as well as impact on personal incomes and national economies. The devastation caused to the taro industry in Samoa (previously known as Western Samoa) as a result of the TLB outbreak in the early 1990s is an example of the destructive nature of the disease [15]. The disease caused serious economic hardship in rural areas, food insecurity and the loss of vital export earnings for the country. The introduction of TLB to the Caribbean in 2004 led to the annihilation of the taro crop in the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico [1]. Most recently TLB has been reported from West Africa in Cameroon [16], Nigeria [17] and Ghana [18] where it continues to decimate taro cultivation, and is impacting on the livelihoods and food security of rural communities. A number of other countries in West and Central Africa may face the same problem because the disease has the capacity to spread on taro planting material—the Oomycete has been reported to survive on planting tops for up to 3 weeks after harvest [19].

This paper provides an overview of TLB, its symptoms, origin, distribution, epidemiology, management and global impact. The paper will focus on breeding strategies to address the challenges presented by the disease, and how countries vulnerable to its advance can take advantage of the experiences and outputs of previous initiatives that have had to deal with its devastation.

2. History of Taro Leaf Blight Epidemics and Impacts

There has been limited documentation of the impact of TLB on countries and communities affected by the disease apart from the Pacific region. In most cases, wherever the disease has occurred in the Pacific, for example in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, American Samoa and Samoa, the introduction of TLB has forced growers to abandon taro and grow other root crops [20].

It is believed that TLB has been present in the Pacific region since the early 1900s [21]. The disease was first recorded in Guam (1918) and later in Hawaii (1920). Prior to the arrival of the disease in Hawaii, it was thought that there were more than 300 different taro varieties but only a few have survived the impact of the disease [22]. Similarly, in Guam, more than 60% of known varieties are believed to have been lost as a consequence of the disease [23,24].

In Micronesia, TLB was reported during the Japanese occupation of Pohnpei [5]. Since then it is thought to have contributed to changes in the cropping system, which in turn has affected dietary patterns. Today, cassava has replaced taro as a major staple [25,26]. Most if not all the varieties that existed before the arrival of the Japanese are no longer present [22]. Taro now ranks behind yams, banana, rice, and breadfruit in Pohnpei [27].

In Papua New Guinea, outbreaks of TLB over the years are believed to have led to the decline in taro production and its displacement by sweet potato [28,29,30]. Most likely, the disease spread there from Indonesia during the Second World War. The outbreak in Bougainville was said to have contributed to the death of at least 3000 people [31]. Possibly, the occurrence of war forced communities to vacate their villages and take to forests, and the loss of taro to sustain them resulted in hunger and malnutrition [23,32]. More recently, severe epidemics occurred on the island of Manus in 1976 and in Milne Bay in 1988 completely destroying the crop on each occasion [20]. In Solomon Islands, the disease first appeared in the Shortland Islands in 1946 [33] and within a few years it swiftly spread to most provinces. The disease contributed to a decline in taro production throughout the country [5]. As in Papua New Guinea, disease outbreaks led to sweet potato rapidly replacing taro as the staple food crop [34].

The 1993-1994 epidemic of TLB in American Samoa and Samoa was catastrophic for taro production [35]. Before the disease introduction, taro was the main agricultural export of Samoa, but within six months there was little to trade [36]. Production fell from 0.4 million tonnes per year before the epidemic to less than 5 tonnes by the end of 1995 [37]. In 1993, the export value of taro for Samoa was US$3.5 million (about 58% of Samoa’s agricultural exports) but by 1994 the value had declined to less than US$60,000 [38] or about 0.5% of the 1993 export figure. Within two years from the start of outbreak in the Samoas, only 200 farmers were growing taro; these were farmers who had the resources to purchase fungicides. Most other growers abandoned the crop and shifted to alternative though less preferred crops such as Alocasia, Xanthosoma, breadfruit, banana, sweet potato and cassava. By 1994, supplies of taro on the local market were only 1% of the supplies of the previous year [39]. In response, both countries increased rice imports resulting in large trade imbalances.

In 2010, TLB spread to the West African nation of Cameroon where it caused harvest losses of up to 90% [16]. Not only are market prices very high for the little that is now available, there is a scarcity of planting material. The future is uncertain, as it is not clear if alternative food crops can fill the gap left by the demise of taro. Maize production in Cameroon has never met demand and plantains are usually very expensive. There is concern for food security and social unrest. The disease has spread rapidly to other countries in West Africa, including Nigeria and Ghana [17,18]. While it is too early to assess the impact of TLB on these countries, experience tells us that the disease has a potential to create a devastating cascade effect: reduction in food and household incomes, increased poverty and even starvation.

3. Diseases Symptoms

As its name implies, the most obvious and frequent symptom is a blight of the leaf lamina, but P. colocasiae also produces a postharvest rot of the corms. A petiole rot is also seen in susceptible varieties [37]. Early leaf infections often take place where rainfall, dew, or guttation droplets accumulate. Initial infections form water-soaked lesions that rapidly expand to form large brown spots [11]. The development of these lesions follows a characteristic day/night pattern. During the night, the lesions expand by developing a 3-5 mm wide water-soaked margin. This margin dries out during the day and a newer water–soaked zone forms the following night [40]. This results in a zonate pattern most easily seen when viewed from the bottom of leaf. Masses of sporangia form on the expanding margin of the lesion during the night, imparting a white powdery appearance to the lesions.

A conspicuous and characteristic feature of TLB lesions is the formation of droplets of amber, bright-orange, or reddish-brown exudate, oozing from the upper and lower surface of the water-soaked margins. These droplets dry out during the day to form crusty deposits on the surface of the lesion. It is common to observe lesions of different stages on the leaf. Lesions are also formed by sporangia that are splashed by irrigation, rain or wind-drive rain. As the lesion gets larger, the dead central area often breaks and falls out.

Infected petioles are uncommon, but occur in susceptible varieties. The infections start as small, brown, elongated spots. In wet weather, the spots can expand and soften until the petioles are broken by the weight of their leaves [41]. During dry weather the rate of lesion expansion generally slows and lesions may change colour, turning tan to brown with dark brown margins. In some resistant taro cultivars, the centre of lesions become papery and break apart, which gives a conspicuous “shot-hole” appearance [11]. Leaves of susceptible varieties collapse in about 20 days compared to 40 days for non-infected plants [42,43]. Therefore, photosynthesis is greatly reduced in susceptible plants, leading to progressively smaller leaves and corms.

Corm rots usually develop rapidly after harvest and entire corms can decay in 7–10 days. The rots usually start from areas damaged at harvest when the petiole bases and suckers are removed, especially during or after wet, warm conditions. In the early stages, the diseased tissue is light-brown, firm, and often has a distinct margin. In the advanced stages of corm rot, the decayed corm tissue may be invaded by Lasiodiplodia theobromae and turn black [14].

4. Origin, Dispersal and Distribution of Disease

Taro leaf blight was first described by Raciborski in 1900 [44] who named its causal pathogen P. colocasiae Racib. Information on the origin of P. colocasiae is limited [45] and the area of origin remains undefined [46]. Trujillo [9] speculated that the pathogen might have originated in South-east Asia, based on earlier reports of the disease in India. Ko [47] supported Asia as the centre of origin of P. colocasiae because of the coexistence of wild and cultivated varieties of taro in the region. According to Zentmyer [45], one of the indications of the centre of origin of an organism such as Phytophthora is the co-existence of A1 and A2 mating types with roughly an equal distribution in the same area. Based on this hypothesis, Ann et al. [48] screened about 800 isolates of P. colocasiae from Taiwan and all acted as A2 mating types, indicating that it is most likely not indigenous to Taiwan. Only the A1 mating type was previously reported from India [49] although recently A2 mating types from India have also been reported [50,51]. A further hypothesis of an Asian origin of P. colocasiae has recently come from China [46], where previously only A2 mating types were reported [52]. However, analysis of more than 200 isolates of P. colocasiae obtained from Hainan Island (an offshore island in the tropical region of southern China) recovered all three mating types, A0, A1 and A2 indicating that Hainan Island is likely to be inside the centre of origin of P. colocasiae from where it was dispersed. Fullerton & Tyson [53] reported only A2 mating type from Papua New Guinea, Hawaii and Guam, excluding these countries from the centre of origin of P. colocasiae. Tyson & Fullerton [51] further studied mating types of P. colocasiae from the Pacific region, South-east Asia and India and detected only A2 types, extending the A2 mating type list further to Indonesia, India, Philippines, Pohnpei, Thailand and Vietnam. Because of the apparently restricted distribution of the A1 mating type and the geographical separation from the areas in which it is found (Hainan Island, China and Northern India), the likelihood of the introduction of the A1 mating type to the Pacific region is considered to be relatively small [51].

Trujillo [9] postulated that the disease spread into the Pacific region by three different routes based on a possible South-east Asian origin for the pathogen. The first dispersal route is to Hawaii via the Philippines, the second from Taiwan to Micronesia via the Philippines and the third to Fiji via Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands. At that time, TLB was reported to be present in Fiji but that record was based on a misidentification [5,23,40]. Nevertheless, the movement of TLB to Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands would appear to be a separate route and is supported by only anecdotal evidence that the disease appeared after the Western Pacific Campaign of the Second World War [54]. Ooka [44] hypothesized that movement on the northern route went from Java to Taiwan, where the disease was reported in 1911. From Taiwan, it is believed to have moved to Japan and thence to Hawaii where it arrived in 1920 [21]. The disease was first recorded in the Philippines in 1916 and movement to Micronesia most likely occurred from there considering the disease was first recorded in Guam in 1918 [55]. There have been no studies on the distribution of mating types in American Samoa and Samoa that could indicate the likely sources of the pathogen, although it is widely speculated that the pathogen arrived in Samoa from Hawaii, probably through infected taro planting material [3].

The pathogen is believed to be distributed by means of vegetatively propagated material, and possibly by soil movement. The Oomycete is now widely distributed geographically over almost all continents including Asia (Bangladesh, Brunei, China, India, Indonesia, Irian Jaya, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Peninsular Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand), Africa (Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Seychelles), North America (USA), Central America and Caribbean (Brazil, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago), South America (Argentina), Oceania (American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands) [17,18,56,57]. Some of these reports have not been verified and need confirmation. For example, the disease in Fiji is clearly an invalid record [40].

5. Biology of the Pathogen

5.1. Host Range

Phytophthora colocasiae has limited host range [11]. The pathogen is known to infect primarily Colocasia spp. (C. esculenta, C. esculenta var. globulifer, C. antiquorum) and Alocasia macrorhiza (giant taro). Although Alocasia taro can be infected by the pathogen, the ability of the disease to become epidemic on this host is restricted by very low inoculum production [5]. Xanthosoma spp. (Xanthosoma saggittifolia) is immune [40]. Other reported hosts include Amorphophallus campanulatus (elephant-foot yam), Bougainvillea spectabilis (bougainvillea), Cantharanthus roseus (periwinkle), Dracontium polyphyllum (guapa), Hevea brasiliensis (rubber), Panax quinquefolius (American ginseng), Piper betle (betel), Piper nigrum (black pepper), Ricinis communis (castor bean) and Vinca rosea (periwinkle) [58]. Many of the records from these hosts, however, need to be confirmed.

5.2. Life Cycle

The disease cycle of P. colocasiae is dependent upon environmental factors (rainfall, humidity and temperature) and host genotype. The primary reproductive unit of the pathogen is the sporangium which requires free water to germinate. Although taro leaves have a waxy surface, the tiny droplets of water that accumulate on leaves provide sufficient moisture for sporangia to germinate. Under cooler conditions (close to 20 °C), the cytoplasm within each sporangium differentiates into 15–20 zoospores (Figure 1 and Figure 2), each oozing out through the terminal pore and moving through the water using their flagella. This is a rapid process and from the beginning of differentiation in the cytoplasm to zoospore release takes less than a minute. The zoospores settle onto the leaf surface within 10 min, lose their flagella and form a rounded cyst which soon germinates to form a germ tube. This mode of germination often referred as the “indirect mode” provides a strong ecological advantage to the pathogen as it generates up to a 15-fold increase in inoculum. New infections can be initiated within an hour of a sporangium being formed and P. colocasiae can continue sporulating and infecting during short periods of leaf wetness [40]. Under warmer conditions (about 25 °C), the sporangia germinate directly by germ tubes that can infect the leaves (Figure 1). This form of germination generally referred to as the “direct mode” is a slower process than zoospore production as it can take 5–6 h for a sporangium to germinate. The proportion of sporangia germinating directly is usually much lower than for those forming zoospores [59].
Agriculture 02 00182 g001 1024Figure 1. Sporangia of P. colocasiae germinating directly and also by productionof zoospores.

5.3. Infection Process and Conditions

Infection can occur on both surfaces of the leaf [11] and most infections occur between midnight and dawn [59]. Daytime infections occur only during continuously wet conditions. During infection, germ tubes developing from either sporangia or encysted zoospores penetrate the epidermis directly or enter via stomata. After penetration, the Oomycete spreads intercellularly through the mesophyll. First symptoms usually appear within 24 h and the rate of symptom development is greatest at temperatures in the range 25–30 °C under cloudy and/or showery conditions. At 35 °C symptom development is suppressed.

In wetland taro, sporangia can move with the water throughout a field and into adjacent paddies. The pathogen can also live for a time as mycelium in dead and dying plant tissues and in infected corms. During dry periods it can survive in the soil as encysted zoospores, or possibly as chlamydospores [60]. The life span of fungal mycelium in soils is usually short, surviving for less than five days. However, the encysted zoospores of P. colocasiae can endure for several months in the absence of a living host. Most sporangia in vegetative material (e.g., tops used for planting) seldom survive more than a few days though some have been shown to survive for up to 2 weeks [53]. Oospores and chlamydospores may operate as survival structures in infected plant tissues or sometimes in soils, but they are not frequently detected in the field (Figure 2) [11].

5.4. Genetic Variability and Heterothallism

P. colocasiae is a diploid heterothallic Oomycete, requiring opposite mating types (A1 and A2) for the formation of oospores [51]. Heterothallic species of Phytophthora readily produce oospores in pairings (intra- or inter-specific) of two compatible mating types [47] and different strains are likely to recombine and evolve rapidly depending on the frequency of A1 and A2 mating types. While oospore formation can be readily induced between opposite mating types in culture, there is no evidence that this event occurs regularly in nature.

The extent of genetic variability in P. colocasiae is unknown but in other Phytophthora species, sexual reproduction is associated with increased genetic variation, including increased variability in virulence and aggressiveness [53]. The capacity for sexual reproduction in P. colocasiae [46,49] has already been documented. Recently, Lebot et al. [61] studied isozyme variation among isolates of P. colocasiae originating from South-east Asia and the Pacific region and the results indicated that throughout this vast geographic region, TLB is caused by a plethora of distinct and genetically variable isolates. Variations occur within and among countries. Because P. colocasiae is diploid and heterothallic, different genetically variable isolates are likely to recombine and evolve depending on the frequency and occurrence of A1 and A2 mating types. Lebot et al. [61] have demonstrated that all zymotypes are unique to each country and this might be an indication of rapid evolution within isolated populations. In some countries, for example, Thailand, the high level of genetic diversity might indicate that both migration and sexual recombination play important roles in the population dynamics of P. colocasiae. However, Fullerton and Tyson [53] argued that although pathogenic variability may be inferred from a high degree of variability determined by enzyme or molecular analysis, this has not yet been demonstrated.

6. Disease Epidemiology

Favourable temperatures and regular periods of leaf wetness, particularly in the humid tropics promote TLB epidemics by favouring pathogen dispersal, infection, and disease development [62]. Outbreaks of the disease in new areas distant from known centres of infection probably result from the introduction of infected planting material. Within an infected area, the first lesions are due to infection from adjacent plants. Epidemics generally flourish when night temperatures are in the range 17–20 °C. The cool temperatures stimulate the release of infective zoospores, promoting multiple infections.

Taro leaves have waxy hydrophobic leaf cuticles, which assist the wash-off of sporangia and zoospores from the leaves into soil, or their splash onto other leaves and petioles, particularly the lower older ones. However, in the absence of regular rainfall, conditions favourable to re-infection occur on most nights ensuring regular cycling and survival on infected plants thus making it endemic. Under conditions of endemic survival, the distribution of infected plants in an area, and the severity of symptoms on those plants are generally irregular; while some plants become severely diseased with continuous night time sporulation and localised re-infection, others immediately adjacent may have little or no disease [53]. Generally, older leaves or younger leaves lower in the canopy are most severely affected because of a number of factors: a constant supply of inoculum deposited by runoff water or dew from above; a more conducive microclimate for the Oomycete lower in the canopy; and also because the less waxy cuticles of older leaves tolerates better adhesion of spore-carrying water drops [53]. Under normal circumstances large numbers of sporangia are also washed from lower leaves into the soil. While most of these lyse within the first few days, a small proportion develops thick walls, forming chlamydospores that are able to survive in soil for up to three months [60]. The importance of soil borne chlamydospores in the epidemiology of the disease has not been established but they could allow survival of the pathogen between crops [53]. In situations where vegetative material dies off because of drought or cold conditions, the pathogen most likely survives between seasons as vegetative mycelium in the infected corms [63]. In wetland taro production, the movement of paddy water carries these sporangia and zoospores among plants and between fields. Because growers propagate taro vegetatively, they often unknowingly transport P. colocasiae between fields and over long distances by the movement of infected planting material [11].

7. Disease Management Strategies

7.1. Cultural and Biological Control

A number of cultural methods have been recommended for the control of TLB disease. Individually each may be of limited benefit, but collectively they may play an important role in an integrated approach to disease management. The main cultural practices include removal of infected leaves during the early stages of disease development, wide spacing of plants to reduce disease spread, selection of sites surrounded by forest as a barrier to disease spread, isolation of new crops from those that are diseased, and the use of planting material free from disease [11,23,43]. Putter [59] showed that the removal of infected leaves was highly effective in controlling the disease in subsistence taro gardens, particularly when plots were relatively well separated from one another. This strategy can be effective when the disease is in an endemic phase with a relatively low and restricted disease incidence. In contrast, when the disease is in an epidemic phase, the removal of all leaves with lesions may lead to almost complete defoliation of the crop with consequent effects on yield [43]. This was the experience of growers in Samoa [64] where sanitation was largely abandoned as a disease management strategy. In some situations, intercropping of taro with other crops may help in reducing disease. Disease severity was found to be consistently higher in taro monocrops than in a taro/maize intercropping system [23,65]. Foliar application of biological control agents has some potential to protect taro crops from infection. For example, significant reductions in the numbers of infected leaves and disease severity were observed in taro plants sprayed with the fungus Trichoderma [66]. In Phichit plain near Phitsanulok, Thailand, some professional taro growers avoid serious TLB infections by planting during the dry season (V. Lebot, personal communication 2012) [67].

7.2. Chemical Control

Successful control of TLB is possible with chemicals even in high rainfall areas. A range of protectant and systemic fungicides have been found to provide effective control of TLB [7,11,43]. Mancozeb (e.g., Dithane M45), copper (e.g., copper oxychloride), metalaxyl (e.g., Ridomil Gold MZ) and phosphorus acid (e.g., Foschek) are amongst those most commonly recommended. Mancozeb and copper have protectant activity only. Metalaxyl and phosphorus acid are generally specific for Phytophthora diseases with the former prone to the development of resistance by the organism [53]. In contrast Jackson et al. [43] found that Mancozeb did not control the disease in Solomon Islands suggesting that results with chemical control can be variable. Similarly, Trujillo [68] reported that copper gave little control in Hawaii. In Samoa, a research program to investigate chemical control [3] recommended that phosphorus acid (Foschek), which was shown to give good control of TLB, should be alternated with Mancozeb to reduce costs and minimise the possibility of the Oomycete developing resistance. It was also observed that there were no significant differences between phosphorus acid formulations (Foschek, Agri-Fos 400 and Foli-R-Fos) for disease control. In some cases, soils may be drenched with approved products such as MetaStar or Ridomil as a pre-plant treatment and provide initial protection against TLB for 4–6 weeks [11].

The efficacy of fungicides is strongly governed by the severity of the disease at the time, and the prevailing weather conditions [53]. Generally, fungicides are most effective when disease incidence is low and timely applications reduce inoculum levels. When diseases enter an exponential phase, efficacy of disease control is reduced. Efficacy is also influenced by method of application, with motorised knapsack applications superior to conventional hydraulic machines [7,43], a fact related to improved coverage and speed of application especially in high rainfall situations. However, for most situations, the use of fungicides however applied is neither economically sustainable nor environmentally suitable.

7.3. Resistant Cultivars and Genetic Resources

The use of resistant varieties offers the most sustainable management strategy against TLB in most production systems. Resistance can be classified as either vertical or horizontal. Vertical resistance (VR), also referred to as monogenic resistance is generally controlled by one or few major genes and provides complete control against certain races of a pathogen [69]. It is often characterized by a hypersensitive reaction in the host. In a number of cases a gene-for-gene relationship has been demonstrated [70]. Subsequently, new pathogen races evolve that are able to attack previously resistant plants. For this reason, VR is often referred to as non-durable resistance [71].

The genetic control of VR against TLB may not be very complicated and simply inherited [72]. Although a number of genotypes have been shown to express a hypersensitive reaction when challenged by P. colocasiae, to date there is no evidence of breakdown of resistance by matching pathotypes [53]. However, it is an area little investigated. In contrast, horizontal resistance (HR) is controlled by a number of minor genes and does not involve a gene-for-gene relationship. It is considered effective against all races of a pathogen and has a reputation for durability, hence referred to as durable resistance. Unlike VR, this type of resistance does not give complete control but limits the spread of the pathogen within the plant and frequently reduces sporulation. The resistance mechanism in taro against TLB is considered to fall under the HR category based on several host-pathogen interaction models and genetic studies [69,70,73]. Because of predominant heterozygosity of taro genotypes, it is not easy to study the inheritance in a classical Mendelian fashion [74].

The physiological and biochemical mechanisms of resistance and host defence responses have not been studied in detail in the taro and P. colocasiae pathosystem [75]. Characteristic defence response in taro like many other host species likely includes systemic events through signalling and possibly constitutive and hydrolytic enzymes, enzyme inhibitors and phytoalexins. It was, however, established by Ho and Ramsden [75] that peroxidase enzymes play no vital role in the defence mechanisms of taro and proteinase inhibitors were the most important components for resistance to TLB. Recently Sharma et al. [76] employed suppressive subtractive hybridization, cDNA libraries, Northern blot analysis, high throughput DNA sequencing, and bioinformatics to identify the defence-related genes in taro induced by P. colocasiae infection. Using these genomic tools, two putative resistance genes and a transcription factor among the upregulated sequences were identified. There was a higher overall expression of these genes in TLB-resistant genotypes than in those susceptible to the disease.

Resistance in the majority of taro germplasm worldwide was previously considered to be limited globally. Recent evaluations, however, indicate that resistance in traditional cultivars exists in germplasm collections of several countries where TLB has been present for a long time, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and India [74]. Over twenty TLB-resistant taro varieties were also identified in germplasm from Palau. These genotypes also performed well in field trials in Hawaii [77,78] and many other Pacific Island countries. The genetic diversity of available resistance is, however, considered to be limited although germplasm from South-east Asia is considered to be more diverse than that in the Pacific [79,80,81]. The Centre for Pacific Crops and Trees (CePaCT formerly the Regional Germplasm Centre (RGC)) of the Secretariat of Pacific Community (SPC) maintains a collection of taro varieties with varying levels resistance to TLB. These varieties are the products of breeding programs in Hawaii, Papua New Guinea and Samoa. The CePaCT also has taro varieties from Asia, which have shown TLB resistance when evaluated in their countries of origin. In Hawaii, a new program collected almost 300 taro genotypes from Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar, China, Japan, and the Philippines, and from seven locations in Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia. Varying levels of resistance to TLB were noted [82]. Interestingly, 40% of 424 indigenous accessions at the Central Tuber Crop Research Institute of India were reported to show tolerance to TLB [83].

7.4. Breeding for Resistance to Taro Leaf Blight

Taro leaf blight control by breeding for resistance has proven to be an extremely cost-effective and environmentally acceptable approach [34,84,85,86]. The success of breeding for resistance against TLB depends on the availability of genetic resources and the type of resistance they confer [74,87]. The use of polygenic or HR is one of the most effective means to control TLB [8,86]. This breeding strategy involves the systematic selection of the resistant individuals from a population followed by recombination of the selected individuals to form a new population (recurrent selection). The main advantage of this strategy is its ability to accumulate minor resistance genes, which individually would confer minimal resistance [86], but together are likely to be additive and provide durable disease resistance. Because HR is not pathotype specific, failure to identify different pathotypes is not a limiting factor to the strategy [70,86]. A major challenge however, is the reliable identification of the least susceptible individuals in the population for use in the next cycle of inter-crossing. With HR breeding strategies, it is normal to generate many progenies of good agronomic quality differing widely in their degree of disease resistance. Such a range of material provides the opportunity to match the degree of resistance to the potential risk of disease [53]. Taro breeding programs have been implemented at a number of institutes worldwide, with those in Hawaii, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Solomon Islands specifically focused on TLB.

The Papua New Guinea taro breeding program is based on a modified recurrent selection strategy and gives high priority to TLB resistance. Cycle-1 was developed in 1994 by crossing the resistant base population with superior (high yielding and tasting) local taro varieties [88]. Some partially superior genotypes were recovered from cycle-1 from among a majority that retained undesirable wild characteristics. Cycle-2 was created in 1996 by inter-crossing these partially superior genotypes. Three new varieties (NT 01, NT 02 and NT 03) were released from cycle-2 in 2001 [86,89], and one variety (NT 04) was released from cycle-3 by inter-crossing selected cycle-2 genotypes [8]. The development of these high-yielding varieties of taro has helped to reduce the threat of TLB in Papua New Guinea. The varieties performed well in farmers’ fields giving over 50% higher yields (about 9 t/ha) than the popular variety “Numkowec” (about 6 t/ha) used as a check [89]. These breeders’ lines have been widely adopted in many areas of Papua New Guinea [90]. Other elite hybrids (with high yield, acceptable palatability and resistance to TLB) have been identified post cycle-3 and are being considered for official release.

It is likely that those lines released from advanced cycles will be superior in their attributes, especially palatability, because of the polygenic breeding approach (accumulation of superior genes from cycle to cycle) adopted by the Papua New Guinea program. It appears from recent analyses that breeding selections have reached a plateau in terms of yield, and to make further genetic gains there is a need to cross local varieties with taro of different genetic backgrounds [91].

The goal of the Hawaii taro breeding program is to improve commercial taro for pest resistance, including TLB, and to increase genetic diversity. At the earlier stages of the program, a single source of TLB resistance from Palau was crossed with Hawaiian taro [68,92]. Later, multiple sources of resistance were introduced from Micronesia, Palau, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Thailand and Nepal. In cycle-1, crosses were made between commercial cultivars and introduced genotypes. The resulting hybrids were evaluated for desirable agronomic traits, and elite hybrids selected for the next cycle. The breeding program is based on two approaches. The first approach is similar to the breeding program in Papua New Guinea, and involves crossing commercial taro with TLB-resistant wild varieties from Thailand and Papua New Guinea. In this process, additional breeding (modified backcrossing or rigid selection through an extra generation) is needed to produce elite hybrids. This requires at least four years. The second approach is to cross commercial taro with TLB-resistant taro from Palau and Micronesia. In this process, elite types can be selected in the first year. Several new hybrids were produced including hybrids “99-6,” “99-7,” and “99-9”. These hybrids have greater tolerance to TLB, and yield 30% more than the industry standards, to which they are comparable in corm taste and colour [93].

The Samoan taro breeding program is different from that in Papua New Guinea and Hawaii. A participatory approach to breeding was adopted from the outset, which involved researchers, farmers and extension staff [29]. The Taro Improvement Program (TIP) at the University of the South Pacific began in early 1999. The aim was to bring together taro farmers via crop-focused participatory appraisals and provide them with options for improving production and managing TLB [29]. TIP made good progress and farmers evaluated and selected clones derived from crosses between local (Samoan) cultivars and those from Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia [29]. Later, to broaden the genetic diversity of the breeders’ lines, the program has made crosses using varieties from Asia to improve further TLB resistance whilst retaining the quality characteristics favoured by Samoans and the export market in New Zealand. To date, seven cycles of breeding have been completed. In 2009, the Ministry of Agriculture in Samoa released five TLB-resistant cultivars of which Samoa 1 and 2, identified from breeding cycle-5, are the most preferred for export [94,95].

The Vanuatu breeding program is based on combining genotypes from the two major genepools to establish a wide genetic base [96]. Elite cultivars for desired agronomic characteristics have been identified, based on an eco-geographic survey of the genetic variation existing in the region and systematic characterisation using morphological, agronomic and molecular characters. The resultant selections have been exchanged between participating countries: the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu [79,97].

8. Role of Regional Networks for Controlling Taro Leaf Blight

After the serious outbreak of disease in Samoa in 1993, the occurrence of periodic epidemics in Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, and the threat of introduction of TLB to disease-free countries, the Pacific islands sought a regional collaborative approach to deal with the problem. No one country has sufficient resources to tackle the problem alone. There is much to be gained by countries participating in a regional network which facilitates germplasm sharing and enhancement, and keeps countries informed of activities in the region and outside. This provides a mechanism whereby collaboration can be fostered to achieve a more strategic approach to TLB control and taro improvement generally. It was identified that major constraints for taro breeding programs including TLB resistance breeding are the lack of knowledge of the genetic diversity in the cultivars, the limitations in access to and knowledge of additional sources of disease resistance as well as the absence of information on the potential agronomic and processing value of genotypes [74].

The crop network model was conceptualized with implementation of two regional collaborative projects. The first network, the AusAID-funded Taro Genetic Resources: Conservation and Utilization Network (TaroGen) re-activated the Papua New Guinea and Samoan TLB resistance breeding programs after a long dormant period, and linked them closely with other Pacific programs for the development of a core collection for Pacific taro and the safe sharing of virus-indexed breeders’ lines and traditional cultivars [86]. To link the Pacific with South-east Asia, a second network, the EU-funded Taro Network for South-east Asia and Oceania (TANSAO) was established [98]. Through the collaborative research that developed, there were notable achievements, and in less than a decade high yielding progenies resistant to TLB were developed.

Both TaroGen and TANSAO established networks incorporating local universities and research institutions, with regional and international organizations. Under TaroGen national collections (more than 2000 accessions) were assembled, characterized to identify a regional core representing the genetic diversity of taro in the region, and conserved [80,99]. Under TANSAO, a core sample was made that captured much of the genetic diversity from South-east Asia. Both networks successfully improved taro quality and resistance to TLB. They also achieved significant outputs in diagnostics for taro viruses, as well as initiated the establishment of regional genebanks in Fiji (SPC) and Indonesia (LIPI). The SPC genebank is now an international hub for the conservation and distribution of taro in Asia and the Pacific.

The success of these two networks laid the foundation for the genesis of a new initiative, the International Network for Edible Aroids (INEA) which aims to link all the major taro genepools and promote the interchange of taro genetic resources worldwide ( [100]. In addition to many food security goals, this new network holds the potential to manage TLB, especially in West Africa where extensive epidemics have been reported recently.

9. Way Forward for Mitigating Impact of TLB on Food Security

Taro leaf blight has been a particularly destructive disease in the Pacific and South-east Asia over many decades and has now reached West Africa. Food security of smallholder farmers has been threatened in all these regions, and in some cases economies put at risk, as the disease is difficult to manage by conventional means. The only solution has come through resistance breeding, but the difficulty in this approach has been a lack of a worldwide coordinated strategy. However, in recent years the success of regional interventions has given hope and shown that collaboration between countries is possible and has great merit. This success has largely come from the result of the networks built under TaroGen and TANSAO [91]. Genetic resources were collected and shared and used to breed for resistance. The key lessons learnt from TaroGen and TANSAO collaboration were: the need to use modern biotechnologies to solve crop improvement problems, linking countries, regional institutions and universities with centres of excellence outside the regions that specialise in DNA fingerprinting, virus indexing and conservation; that farmers must be involved in taro breeding from the outset; and that effective and efficient project co-ordination is required, ensuring interaction among national programs, other partners and funding agencies [101]. These are the strategies now being implemented by INEA to use taro and other edible aroids to build a model to improve clonally propagated crops of the tropics. INEA is a timely intervention, coming at a critical time for farmers in West Africa who are now suffering the consequences from the inadvertent introduction of TLB to that continent. The devastation caused there is a salient reminder of the potential of P. colocasiae to undermine food security and the need for lasting solutions.


We thank Emil Adams and Fred Brooks for kindly providing the diagrams presented in this review.


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