With the increasing modernization of society and the continual distancing of urban dwellers from agriculture, the importance of a healthy food supply needs to be re-iterated to society. As plant pathologists, we should consider this an important issue as most people apparently are unaware that plants can be diseased. As the public becomes more interested in the environment and the impact of the increasing human population on earth's resources, I believe we have a fresh chance to demonstrate the role and significant of plant pathology to society. Ethnophytopathology might be considered a reworking of the classic plant pathological concept of the disease triangle, i.e. the relationships between pathogens, the environment, and society.
The objective of forming this concept of 'ethnophytopathology' is to reveal our social and cultural interactions with plant pathology. If the concept is successful it may also bridge a gap between science and society. Other disciplines have pursued such an ethnological approach for teaching and research purposes. For example, ethnobotany is a common course on college campuses and ethnobotanists are in demand to study the role of plants in human society, particularly in exploring the use of rainforest plants for medicinal purposes, as well as for biodiversity and germplasm resources. Ethnoecology, the study of the management systems of indigenous peoples (1), is particularly important for its application to the creation of sustainable use systems in the tropics. Community based pest-management in Africa and maize variety management in Mexico are demonstrations of active programs in ethnoecology (2, 3). Other fields include ethnomathematics, ethnohistory, ethnopsychiatry, and ethnobiology. There is even a Journal of Ethnopharmacology that is devoted to bioscientific research on indigenous drugs. Further support for the concept of ethnophytopathology is obtained from related comments on ethnography that argue that it is a "way to reestablish nineteenth century epidemiology's concern with host and environment" (4).
Plant pathology is a diverse and rich area for study and we have expertise in many fields including mycology, bacteriology, virology, ecology, nematology, entomology, botany, plant breeding, food safety, and epidemiology, to name a few. Plant pathologists are uniquely equipped to address many issues that concern the public. These topics include (re)-emerging infectious pathogens such as Phytopthora infestans, geminiviruses, and tospoviruses that reduce the quality of productivity of many crops. In addition, these and other pathogens such as wheat rusts and smuts have been mentioned as possible agents for bio-terriorism or bio-warfare (5). People are clearly interested in plant-based gene therapy with transgenic plants and the use of viral vectors. Both of these research areas have greatly influenced the biotechnology industry resulting in improved crop yields. In the near future, these technologies will provide new types of human and veterinary medicines, including vaccines. The enormous public reaction to genetically modified plants (and food) suggests that ethnophytopathology is a route to distribute scientific information and a footing for discussions with the general public. Food safety and human health issues related to mycotoxins and Burkholderia cepacia are well known to plant pathologists and also fall within the ethnophytopathology venue. Furthermore, we have a voice in water safety issues, particularly as related to pesticide and fertilizer management.
Plant pathology also has a rich association with the history and culture of every society and these 'lighter' viewpoints can be used to launch discussions that would be of interest to the general public. Such topics could include the Salem witch trials (ergotism), Irish-English history and the migrations resulting from the potato famine, biological control for chestnut blight, the effects of 'tulipomania' on the art and economy of Holland in the 17th century, and the link between coffee rust disease and why tea became the drink of choice in European society. Wheat rust is a magnificent model to study history and culture from ancient to modern times with stops along the way to discuss Robagalia, barberry plants, and the more modern phenomena of breeding resistant wheat varieties for disease control. The dust bowl, including the 'Grapes of Wrath' migrations to California, the beautiful WPA-funded photography, and U. S. Agricultural policy related to farming, provide sufficient fodder for an entire course or a in depth discussion related to enthnophytopathology.
I believe that the public would be intrigued by the conceptual use of 'ethnophytopathology'. Face it, as human beings we are most interested in issues that directly affect our health. If we can put a human face on plant pathology we would be doing ourselves and the public a great service. Most people have had no exposure to farming and therefore have little awareness of where their food comes from or the enormous intersection between their lives (and health) and plant pathology. Ethnophytopathology may provide a mechanism to focus the public on the role of plant pathology in public health (6) and spot-light our crucial role, which was perhaps more perceptible when most of society was rural and farming.
There have been a number of efforts by APS to increase public awareness of these issues including the monthly 'Front Page' of APSnet. The internet-published stories have included articles on tobacco mosaic virus, tospoviruses, black sigotoka of banana, and public health issues related to Burkholderia. A recent article in Plant Disease (7) examines the impact and power of pursuing these concepts in the classroom. I teach a course on 'Pathogens, the Environment, and Society' in our undergraduate Bioenvironmental Science program and find it enormously satisfying. Many topics, from ethics to emerging diseases, have some intersection with or relationship to plant pathology and the conceptual aspects of the disease triangle. I find that ethnophytopathology serves as a rallying point, requiring little change in my definition of what it is to be a plant pathologist. The concept of ethnophytopathology also can be used to remind ourselves and the public that healthy plants have and will continue to play a significant role in maintaining both healthy people and a healthy planet.
1. Prance, G.T. 1991. What is ethnobotany today? Journal of Ethno-Pharmacology 32:209-216.
2. Bellon, M.R. 1991. The ethnoecology of maize variety management: a case study from Mexico. Human Ecology 19:389-418.
3. Malaret, L. and Ngoru, F.N. 1989. Ethno-ecology: a tool for community based pest management--farmer knowledge of termites in Machakos district, Kenya. Sociobiology 15:197-211.
4. Agar, M. 1996. Recasting the "ethno" in "epidemiology". Medical Anthropology 16:391-403.
5. Rogers, P., Whitby, S., and Dando, M. 1999. Biological warfare against crops. Scientific American 280:70-75.
6. Scholthof, K.-B. G. 1999. A role for plant pathology in public health? Emerging Infectious Diseases 5: in press. [http://www.cdc.gov/eid]
7. Schumann, G. L. and D'Arcy, C. J. 1999. Plant Pathology Courses for Agricultural Awareness. Plant Disease 83:492-501.
Karen-Beth G. Scholthof, Ph.D.Dept. of Plant Pathology and MicrobiologyTexas A&M UniversityCollege Station, TX 77843-2132Phone: 409-845-8265Fax: 409-845-6483Email: email@example.comRETURN TO APSnet FEATURE STORY