Scientists at the University of Exeter have warned of the 'devastating' impact that fungal disease in crops will have on global food supply unless agencies across the world come together to find new ways to combat infection.
The experts warn that worldwide growers lose between 10% and 23% of their crops to fungal infection each year, despite widespread use of antifungal treatments, while an additional 10% to 20% is lost post harvest.
In a commentary in the publication Nature, academics predict those figures will worsen as global warming means fungal infections are steadily moving polewards, meaning more countries are likely to see a higher prevalence of fungal infections damaging harvests.
The experts also warn that tolerance to higher temperatures in fungi could increase the likelihood of opportunistic soil-dwelling pathogens to 'hop' hosts, and infect animals or humans.
The report says a 'perfect storm' is causing fungal infections to spread rapidly. The researchers noted that fungi are incredibly resilient, remaining viable in soil for up to 40 years, with airborne spores that can travel between continents.
The study notes that the increasingly widespread use of antifungal treatments that target a single fungal cellular process means fungi can evolve resistance to these fungicides, so that they are no longer effective.
This forces farmers to use ever-higher concentrations of fungicide in a bid to control infection, which can accelerate the pace of resistance developing.
“Fungal infections are threatening some of our most important crops, from potatoes to grains and bananas," said professor Sarah Gurr, chair in food security at the University of Exeter, who co-authored the report.
"We are already seeing massive losses, and this threatens to become a global catastrophe in light of population growth. Recently, we’ve seen the world unite over the human health threat posed by COVID."
"We now urgently need a globally united approach to tackling fungal infection, with more investment, from governments, philanthropic organisations and private companies, to build on the seeds of hope and stop this developing into a global catastrophe which will see people starve.”