Late blight, caused by a fungus-like microbe, is a plant disease that mainly attacks potatoes and tomatoes, is difficult and economically challenging to eradicate, and was largely responsible for the Irish potato famine of the mid-19th century.

Given that world potato production is about 320 million tons per year (20 million tons per year in the United States) and world tomato production is about 120 million tons per year (13 million tons per year in the U.S.), late blight is a major problem worldwide even today. With total costs of the disease estimated at more than $7 billion per year, it can drive farmers out of business and increase food prices.

Howard Judelson, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Riverside, has received a $9 million five-year grant from the United States Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA) to research late blight and ensure a sustainable and long-term control of this devastating disease.

“Late blight is a global problem,” said Judelson who will lead a multidisciplinary team of extension faculty and researchers – plant pathologists, molecular biologists, epidemiologists, plant breeders, sociologists and economists – at universities, government labs and a nonprofit research institution. “To manage this disease, which is favored by cool, moist weather, we need a multipronged approach. In this research project, we will develop an integrated plan of research, education and extension that includes developing diagnostic tools, resistant plants through breeding and biotechnology, and systems to provide improved management guidelines to growers.”

USDA Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics Cathie Woteki visited UC Riverside today (March 30) to make a formal announcement of the research grant and meet with Judelson as well as other UCR scientists and administrators.

“More than 40 percent of current crop production among the top 10 food crops is lost to pests and diseases annually and that is a huge loss for farmers,” Woteki said. “USDA is funding this project to help agricultural producers win the future by ensuring our country can keep producing the food needed to meet rising global demand in a sustainable way.”