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Nutrition management for disease control

We have known how to prevent and reverse plant diseases with nutrition management for a long time. The information is not new, it has just been ignored or forgotten.

Fertilizers and trace minerals can be used to increase disease severity, or to reduce or eliminate disease entirely. Many fertilization practices today are known to increase disease. This knowledge should be foundational for every farmer and agronomist, but has largely been forgotten. Perhaps because it would eliminate the need for fungicide applications?

To illustrate how rich the literature is, here in as excerpt from the opening chapter of Soilborne Plant Pathogens: Management of Diseases with Macro- and Microelements published in 1989. For an up-to-date and more modern version I highly recommend Mineral Nutrition and Plant Disease.

Written by Arthur Englehard:

A large volume of literature is available on disease control affects provided by macro- and microelement amendments. Huber and Watson in 1974 in “Nitrogen Form and Plant Disease” reviewed and discussed the effects of nitrogen and/or nitrogen form on seedling disease, root rots, cortical diseases, vascular wilts, foliar diseases and others. They summarized work from the 259 references in four tables in which they list crops, diseases and citations. McNew in the 1953 USDA Yearbook of Agriculture discussed effects of fertilizers on soilborne diseases and their control. He reviewed briefly specific diseases such as take-all of wheat, Texas root rot, Fusarium wilt of cotton, club root of crucifers and common scab of potato. Many other diseases were mentioned, as well as how macro- and microelements effect host physiology and disease. Huber and Arny in “Interactions of Potassium with Plant Disease” summarized in three tables the effect of K (positive, negative, neutral) on specific diseases. They listed 267 references in the bibliography.

The Potash and Phosphate Institute is dedicated to research and education and celebrated his 50th anniversary in 1985. It is a source of information on the use of K and P in the production of plants and the effects on plant disease. The Institute promotes a systems approach to crop production; disease control is one of the factors in the system.

Leath and Ratcliffe described plant nutrition and diseases in forage crops production. They indicated that fertilizers affect pathogens in the soil and on the host, and also can affect the pathogenicity of an organism. Presley and Bird reviewed the effect of P on the reduction of disease susceptibility of cotton.

In 1983, Graham, in Australia in “Effects of Nutrient Stress on Susceptibility of Plants to Disease with Particular Reference to the Trace Elements” discussed under the heading “Macroelements,” the effect of six essential elements on disease; and under “Micronutrients,” seven essential elements and 15 others as having been reported to influence a host-parasite relationship. He gives 305 literature citations.

Another review by Huber entitled, “The Use of Fertilizers and Organic Amendments in the Control of Plant Disease” contains a wealth of information. He indicated how the severity of 157 diseases was affected by N in table 1. In table 2, a similar listing is given for nitrate and ammonium forms of N. The effects of P, K, Ca and Mg are given in tables 3, 4, 5 and 6 respectively. Tables for S, Na, Mn, Fe, Zn, B, Cu, Si and other elements are also presented.

A literature research of the CAB ABSTRACT database utilizing the DIALOG Information Retrieval Service and using some keywords: soilborne disease, macroelements, microelements, soil fungi, Fusarium, Pythium, and Phytophthora, yielded 1500 citations published during the past 14 years.

The Future

Obviously a virtual flood of literature is available regarding the effects of macro – and micro element soil amendments on the level of soilborne disease in plants. What is lacking is the correlation of the positive factors into integrated production systems. The biggest problem now is how to organize and comprehend the mountain of available and often conflicting data. We have entered an era in which computer-aided analysis and other sophisticated tools are needed to integrate information and develop systems approaches is to growing healthy, productive plants.

One of the most rewarding approaches for the successful reduction of soilborne diseases is the proper selection and utilization of macro- and microelements. Since virtually all commercially produced crops in the developed world are fertilized, it is extremely important to select macro- and microelements that decrease disease. This is an important and viable alternative or supplement to the use of pesticides which usually only gives partial disease control.

Remember, this was published in 1989. What other things have you heard about that deserve to be generally known, but aren’t?

Environment determines genetic expression

Prior to the human genome project, the popular expectation was that understanding the structure of DNA, and being able to edit or manipulate it’s structure would enable us remove the cause of degenerative illness.

As this project approached it’s concluding stages, it became obvious that DNA did not contain enough information to describe all the variability found within a given population. From this insight emerged the concepts of genetic fluidity and the science of epigenetics.

Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene expression that do not involve changes to the underlying DNA sequence — a change in phenotype without a change in genotype. A foundational premise of epigenetics is that changes in environment result in changes of how an organism expresses itself.

“Heredity is nothing more than stored environment.” Luther Burbank

As farmers, we recognize this as an obvious truth. We know that we can plant the same seed in different fields with different soil types, and the crop will express itself differently. This effect is compounded as multiple generations are grown in different environments.

It is easy to recognize this process in plants, and also in animals.

We may not have appreciated enough how fundamental this process is in determining the pathogenicity or infectious capacity for the organisms we call ‘diseases’ or ‘pests’.

When we plant a blueberry plant into soil that is optimally balanced for alfalfa, we have placed it in an environment where it is unlikely to do well.

If we were to plant lambsquarter seeds into forest soil that is undisturbed, they will not even germinate, because they are not in the proper environment.

If we were to plant foxtail seeds into soil that is aggregated and well aerated, they also will not germinate, because they are not in the right environment.

Each of these examples is a case where the environment has determined genetic expression.

Soils can contain fusarium populations that are able to cause disease, but instead develop a symbiotic relationship with the plant, when there is a healthy soil microbial environment present. The DNA of the fusarium remains unchanged, but it’s expression is completely different.

Aphids will die in minutes, and become ‘candied’ when the sugar profile within plant sap they are feeding on changes. A change in the environment determines whether they live or die.

Not all insects in a given population serve as a vector for viruses. If an individual insect benefited from an optimal diet and environment, it will resist viral infections and not spread viruses from one plant to another. (Disease resistance is as real for insects as plants or animals)

Powdery mildew infections can decimate one variety, and leave another variety in close proximity completely untouched. The powdery mildew organism is present in both varieties, but one variety does not present a hospitable environment, and the organism never expresses itself as a ‘disease’.

We could continue this list until we included every ‘disease’ and ‘pest’ that is known.

The concluding point is simple: Every ‘pest’ requires a certain environment to be able to express itself. Change the environment, and the ‘pest’ ceases to be a problem.

If our crops are susceptible to disease or insects, it is because of our management practices that have created a hospitable environment. Change the environment with nutrition and microbial management, and you change the susceptibility.


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