American Agriculture Suffers from Invasive Infestations
by Nick Cowie
Invasive plants and insects have long been an issue for the agricultural industry, but they are wreaking havoc now more than ever. The agricultural industry could lose billions in crop yield if invasives continue to decimate plant production. China, Brazil, India, and the United States have the highest amount of losses in crop yield each year. In the United States alone, losses are estimated to be around $40 billion each year. The problem spans the globe and invasive species are confirmed to impact agricultural production in at least 124 countries. Well over 1,000 invasive species have been discovered to date. With a warmer climate and less annual frost, invasive species are only growing in number.
Some invasive species have been around for a long time. The spotted knapweed entered North America in the late 1800’s and has spread across the United States. The plant is native to Europe and slows the germination of crops through tap roots that take water and nutrients from other plants. Very few animals naturally eat the plant and its high rate of seed production causes it to spread quickly. The spotted knapweed can take years to eradicate. It can be killed through biocontrol or sheep grazing. A study done in Montana projects $42 million losses in the state each year due to spotted knapweed.
Not all invasive species have been dealt with for over a hundred years. In fact, some are so new that there is not much of a plan to get rid of them in place. The spotted lanturnfly is native to China and Vietnam but was spotted in the United States in 2014. For now, the pest is limited to the Pennsylvania area, but it could spread quickly. The spotted lanturnfly feeds on all kinds of fruits and especially loves grapes. In the last few years, vineyards have suffered heavy losses. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, the state has a $13.1 billion dollar annual production of fruit that could be lost if the spotted lanturnfly is not stopped.
Invasive species such as the spotted lanturnfly and the spotted knapweed are especially dangerous because of their ability to spread. The lanturnfly can obviously fly long distances and the spotted knapweed has a long range of seed dispersal. With temperatures on the rise, invasive species are not dying off during the winter in areas that they used to. This simultaneously prolongs the reproduction window for these species, and allows them to live in a wider variety of areas. A warmer climate means more crop-killing invasives in more places.
When controlling an invasive species, preventative measures and education are just as important as eradication efforts. Quarantines can help cut down on the movement of a population. For example, the shipment of a wood that is a known host to an invasive species could be prohibited until an infestation dies down. Some states have gone as far as to prohibit the shipment of certain farm equipment if the problem is bad enough. All farmers are encouraged to consistently check their boots and equipment for invasive insects on a regular basis.
The globalization of agricultural trade has both increased profits of crop yields and exacerbated the influx of invasive species. One major criticism of shipping from Asia is that their regulations to prevent the transportation of invasive species are not strict enough. Shipping pallets are notorious for bringing wood-dwelling insects to the United States. Tighter regulations on shipping during international trade could save the country billions in future crop revenue. The United States and Canada are two of the most vulnerable countries to contract an invasive species due to their large and diverse trade industries.
Research is a very important tool to minimize the future effects of these pests. The University of Minnesota identifies the three most important aspects of this research as the comprehensive cost analysis of an invasive species, evaluation of alternative control or management tactics, and the combination of biological and economic modeling. Most importantly, these steps help identify biosecurity risks. They also help decide what invasive species are a priority to eradicate and what species may not even be possible to get rid of. Some insects or plants will simply cost more to eradicate than the amount of damage they cause while the eradication of others can save billions.
The invasive species problem is not a new one, but it is more relevant now than ever. A large portion of the economy relies on agriculture. When such a big chunk of that production is whipped out each year due to invasive species and the number continues to grow, it is time for alarm. Quarantines, such as the one in Pennsylvania, must be abided by to give professionals time to plan an eradication or containment. In a warming climate where species can live in a wider variety of areas, finding those answers is harder than ever. The safe transportation of products and proper quarantine could save billions in an already hurting agricultural industry.