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The Effects of Swollen Shoot Disease


When plants get sick, the effect on humankind can be catastrophic.

Swollen shoot disease has ravaged cacao trees over the past two decades in Ivory Coast, a country in West Africa. Chocolate lovers will recognize the name cacao in a second, as it is the main ingredient found in the delicious dessert.

Just like human beings suffer from viruses, the same can be said for trees and plants. This can be caused by microbes such as bacteria and fungi as well as the spread of viruses from insects. To curb the spread of viruses, farmers spray chemicals to kill germs and pests. They are also cognizant of which plants are sick, so they will rip them from the ground to prevent any spreading.

In 2018, the Coffee and Cocoa Council in Ivory Coast planned to uproot 3,000 square kilometers of infected cacao trees, about the same size as the state of Rhode Island. It will take more than this to stop the viruses from spreading, however. Scientists are working with researchers to understand, identify, and defend against this crop disease, as well as breed plants that can resist it completely.

Swollen shoot disease gets its name from the fact that the branches of the infected trees swell up as the viruses are multiplying inside of them. Currently, scientists believe that there are at least 84 possible causes of the virus. Identifying the microbes by a plant’s DNA takes a long time, so identifying a sick plant can take longer than it should.

The hope is that something will be able to be done electronically so that farmers and scientists can check the plants right in the field. The sooner they can attack the problem, the safer our foods and agriculture will be.