Pregnancy test science could protect the Christmas sprout
The science behind the home-pregnancy test is now being trialled to detect the presence of plant diseases, which can devastate fields of vegetable crops – including the Christmas sprout.
The test, known as a lateral flow device (LFD), picks up the presence of infective spores carried in the air around crops in the field.
Used alongside weather data, test results could indicate how likely a disease is to develop, allowing growers to decide if crop protection methods are needed or not.
Current trials are underway to help protect crops of Brassicas – sprouts, broccoli, cabbage – and onions, which generated more than £356 million (€403 million) for UK agriculture last year.
Diseases including ring spot, light leaf spot and downy mildew are being monitored. Ring spot in Brassicas is a foliar disease, which if not treated can lead to the loss of 30% of the crop.
Further development work is underway, so growers can gain immediate results, without needing to send samples to laboratories for further testing. The project is the result of an industry partnership between growers, Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) Horticulture, Warwickshire College and Mololgic.
‘A simple, low-cost tool’
AHDB senior scientist Cathryn Lambourne said: “When it’s fully developed this simple, low-cost tool – allowing growers to test whether there is a risk of diseases developing on their crops – will help prevent significant financial losses and reduce the need to use conventional methods to protect their crops.
Over the last four years we’ve been developing the lateral flow device test, demonstrating how simple and effective it is, to give growers the confidence to rely on the results and make appropriate decisions for their business.
Carl Sharp, agronomist at the Allium and Brassica Centre, said: “This could be a big game-changer for growers. If we can get kit like this developed to take out with us, within 10 minutes of walking into a field, growers will have results which show what they need to do to protect their crops.”
Downy mildew in onions can cause damage of up to 50% of individual crops if severe and, in a particularly bad year, the whole industry could see crop losses of up to 25%.
This same disease could wipe out a whole field of salad onion, with one hectare worth around £30,000 (€34,000).
Euan Alexander, Kettle Produce field operations manager, added: “The long period between the disease affecting the crop and the symptoms appearing, which are a characteristic of many of the diseases tested, can lead to devastating diseases becoming established in crops turning them into waste.
Using these tests will allow us to select the appropriate fungicide and time application as part of our crop management strategy, before the disease renders any of the crops unmarketable.
In addition to the common pregnancy test, LFDs are used to detect human diseases including colo-rectal cancer, cardiac issues and drug abuse screening.
The LFD tests are also being developed to detect for other plant diseases. The AHDB is funding the University of Worcester to develop lab tests and LFDs to test for oomycete pathogens, which cause diseases like blight and sudden oak death.
Through the same funding, Warwickshire Colleges and Stockbridge Technology Centre are developing and testing two LFDs to test glasshouse air samples for powdery mildew and gummy stem blight, which affect cucumber crops. Canker in apple tree crops is being investigated in a separate research programme.