New network seeks funding for virus testing
Federal funding for the NRSP5 program in Prosser, Washington, will end in three years.
Apple russet ring disease.Cherry ugly fruit disease, caused by infections of Prunus necrotic ringspot virus in combination with other as yet undetermined factors.Pear stony pit disease on Bartlett.Photos courtesy of Bill Howell
A virus-testing program that has helped keep devastating plant diseases out of the U.S. tree fruit industry for the past half century is in jeopardy. Its federal funding will end in three years.
Bill Howell, manager of the National Research Support Project No. 5 (NRSP5), based at Prosser, Washington, said the program has had a budget of about $500,000 a year. About half of that comes from the federal government through the land-grant universities. The universities have decided to use those federal funds to support new programs instead, with the idea that programs such as NRSP5, which are service-oriented, would be funded in some other way-perhaps entirely by the industries they serve.
The other half of the NRSP5's funding comes from user fees, grants, and in-kind contributions from Washington State University.
Howell said the program's federal funding for the current year is down 40 percent from last year. The program has balanced its budget by substantially raising user fees and cutting staff time. The federal funding is expected to be cut again for the next two years, and will end in 2008.
NRSP5 (formerly known as the Interregional Project No. 2) was formed in 1955 to provide virus testing and certification of deciduous fruit trees. It has been the main source of virus-free tree fruit bud wood in the United States.
Before the program was launched, the tree fruit industry had serious problems with diseases caused by viruses and virus-like organisms.
"They were diseases that growers were unable to control at their own site," Howell said.
Viral diseases-unlike those caused by fungi or bacteria-cannot be controlled by chemicals or eliminated from trees in the field.
Fifty years ago, more than a hundred scientists in the United States were working on viral diseases of tree fruits. Now, there are just three full-time researchers in that field.
Access to cultivars
The program provides fruit-growing states throughout the country with access to important commercial cultivars from around the world, ensuring that they are imported in a controlled and hygienic way so that pests don't come with them, Howell said. The NRSP5 tests material for viruses and eliminates them before the material is distributed for propagation.
"That provides a systematic method of controlling these diseases, which actually works very well," Howell said. "If NRSP5 goes under, all those state certification programs are in big trouble, too, because they have no source of virus-tested material to start with."
He estimates that about two-thirds of the material that comes in through the NRSP5 program contains viruses. While material from breeding programs is usually clean, viruses are often found in wood from commercial orchards.
Howell notes that most of the successful apple varieties today-such as Gala, Braeburn, Jazz, and Pink Lady-came from other countries. Unless there is a good, efficient scheme for bringing new varieties into the country, U.S. growers won't have access to them and will be at a competitive disadvantage.
Howell and the NRSP5 program's director, Dr. Ken Eastwell, have worked with Deborah Golino, director of Foundation Plant Services in California, to launch an organization called the National Clean Plant Network, which would provide virus testing and elimination through the NRSP5 and Foundation Plant Services. The Northwest Grape Foundation Service at WSU is also part of the network.
Golino said her program, which provides virus-testing and treatment for grapes, tree fruits, and nuts, has not received federal funds in the past, but it is in dire financial straits, too, because its income is based on nursery sales and there's been a downturn in grape planting in California. She's looking for funding to subsidize the costs to users. If fees are too high, people might be tempted to smuggle varieties into the United States without virus testing, she fears.
Some grape viruses are severely damaging. Grapevine leafroll virus, for example, reduces grapes' sugar content and color. "You can imagine how the winemakers feel about that," she said.
The network is requesting funding of $2.5 million for each of the first two years from the USDA Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service to operate the existing virus testing and elimination programs in California and Washington and to establish regional foundation blocks of clean, virus-tested plant material in the eastern United States.
It is also asking for a special research grant of $600,000 to find better ways of detecting viruses. In subsequent years, it would need $2.7 million annually.
Supporters of the network have been working with lobbyists from the American Nursery and Landscape Association and Wine America to promote the idea at the Capitol.
Robert Woolley with Dave Wilson Nursery, who helped set up the network, said it's critically important to shore up the NRSP5, and in the future there might be an opportunity to have virus-testing facilities in other regions of the country, such as New York or Michigan, to serve the industries there.
Wanda Heuser Gale, vice president and horticulturist with International Plant Management in Lawrence, Michigan, traveled to Washington, D.C., last fall to tell the USDA Specialty Crops Listening Committee about the urgent need to fund the National Clean Plant Network. Without the NRSP5 program, the industry would have no source of virus-free propagation stock and would be unable to keep abreast of the ever-changing demand for new varieties, she said.
As well as testing and treating varieties coming into the United States, the program tests material from U.S. breeding programs before nurseries export it. In addition, nurseries often use the service to make sure their bud wood of established varieties is free of viruses. Trees can pick up viruses in the field and if bud wood from infected trees is used for new plantings, performance of the young trees can be impacted significantly. Gale said it's estimated that virus-free wood results in 20 to 40 percent higher production. "It's terribly important," she said.
Nurseries that use the NRSP5 program know how important it is, she added, but most growers aren't aware of it. "I think the whole industry needs to understand this is critical. Without it, we won't compete."
The effects of viruses in the orchard can range from irritating to devastating, she explained to the committee. Viruses can delay bearing, limit production, cause small fruit, and shorten the tree's life. The outbreak of plum pox virus in Pennsylvania in 1999 showed how vulnerable the industry is to introduced pathogens, Gale said.
"A contagious virus, such as plum pox, can cause an international disaster, close borders, quarantine nurseries and growing regions, and cause the removal of hundreds of acres of producing trees, and possibly destroy an industry."
Gale said the NRSP5 has not had enough funding to do the job the way it ought to be done. She noted that in the first three years after the plum pox outbreak, the United States spent an estimated $40 million trying to eradicate it. "A well-funded Clean Plant Network may have been able to prevent this outbreak and would have been a much more effective use of money."
Although the committee heard many speakers asking for funding for various projects, Gale thought committee members were receptive to her plea to enable the virus-testing program to continue.
"This is a very concrete need," she said. "We have this in place, and we need it funded. The response to my talk was, I thought, very positive."