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Torrents of Rain Spawn Vegetable Disease in Manitoba, Canada. Is Climate Change Already Taking its Toll of Prairie Food Production There?

Record rainfall and a disastrously wet season have already ruined millions of hectares of grain crops on the Canadian prairies this year.

Now, another scourge, also related to excess moisture, has emerged. A disease identified as “late blight,” phytophthora infestans, has decimated backyard vegetable crops, notably potatoes and tomatoes thoughout much of Manitoba. While no one is suggesting this outbreak will have the same kind of dire consequences, the blight is the same kind that caused the disastrous Irish potato famine of the 18 hundreds. It claimed about a million lives and forced many more to leave the country.

Widespread reports from vegetable gardeners tell of crops ruined by the blight, which is a highly-contagious fungus. It can linger in the soil and even spread in the wind.

My wife and I lost our entire tomato crop this season near the west-central village of Roblin.

Mandy Lewick of Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives (MAFRI) in Roblin, says wet weather, such as we have experienced this year, provides the kind of conditions the disease needs to thrive.

A vegetable specialist with MAFRI, J. Tom Gonsalves, says “late blight” cannot be absolutely confirmed until tests are completed. But, he adds, “Anecdotally it has been reported in most all areas of the province where tomatoes are grown. "These include tomato and potato gardens in the western, south central, interlake and eastern regions along with the city of Winnipeg."

Other crops, like eggplant, can also be affected by late blight although there are no reports so far that they have been.

It is too early to put a number on the losses. But they are obviously considerable.

There are no effective control measures available for late blight if it is confirmed in an organic crop. A government advisory notes, “The disease affects all living tissue of susceptible plants, meaning all foliage as well as the potato tubers and tomatoes themselves are equally susceptible to infection. If the disease is confirmed in an organic field, destroying the crop is unfortunately the only way to prevent the disease from spreading."

Meanwhile, Gonsalves suggests we should be prepared for more of the same in the future. He adds, "Bottom line is that, if late blight is around in 2011, and the conditions are as good for it to thrive as they have been in most of 2010, the odds are that late blight will show up again in 2011."

Earlier this year, there were other reports of "early blight" in tomatoes, believed to have originated in seedlings from some major greenhouses. There has also been reference to tomato seedlings as the source of this recent "late blight" outbreak. In our own case, however, all of our tomatoes were started under lights, indoors, from seed only. As a layman, then, I can only assume the offending spores were carried into our garden on the wind.

So What's With the Reference to Climate Change?

Don't misunderstand. That is my reference and mine alone. As usual, no one in authority is prepared to deal with this "elephant in the room" by uttering the term, even tho their mouths, as one might say, might be full of it. As masses of evidence pile up around the globe of increasing incidents of catastrophic floods, droughts and hurricanes, (i.e. "extreme weather events") authorities continue to respond with weasle-words (i.e. "Sure is 'wacky weather' we're having!") or just a stony silence.

To do otherwise, I guess, would be to acknowledge that you, I and they are to blame. Climate change, after all, is caused by humans. So, if we are all contributing to it through our wasteful, gas-guzzling lifestyles, (as uncaring or downright negligent individuals, industries, governments or organizations), then such an admission would carry with it a commitment to actually do something about it! And we can't have that, can we?

Meanwhile, masses of people, perhaps now the majority in North America, armed only with "coffee-shop wisdom," continue to think they are smarter than the planet's best climate scientists and deny or ignore the problem even as the evidence of its consequences piles up around them!

Contributed by: Larry A. Powell
City: Manitoba
Country: Canada
Date: November 11, 2010