Whether itâ€™s kudzu that a former U.S. President used to stop erosion or Chinese popcorn trees that developers used to quickly grow greenery around new building, plants that are indigenous generally arenâ€™t good for our environment no matter how useful they seem at first.
Now that we know thatâ€™s the case, watchful eyes keep check on plants growing throughout the United States, ever vigilant for some new pest that has somehow made its way into the country or region. Those most likely to first encounter exotic pests in the field are county Extension agents, crop scouts and Master Gardeners.
Thatâ€™s why those people are most likely to be First Detectors, certified under a program that trains people to recognize and respond to exotic pest problems, then registers them as part of a National Plant Diagnostic Network (NPDN).
First Detectors look for invasive plants, threatening diseases, insect pests and weeds. Soybean rust, the most threatening of all at this point, is a test of this long standing network. In fact, itâ€™s such a huge test with tremendous consequences that some might consider it a semester exam.
The network is designed to increase the capacity of the agricultural infrastructure to quickly detect and respond to exotic, threatening diseases, insect pests and weeds. It provides information as well as receives updates on exotic or threatening plant-related problems. Training in Kentucky, where 75% of the Extension agents are First Detectors, is led by Paul Vincelli, plant pathologist with the UK College of Agriculture and a member of the national network.
There are four ways an exotic pest can make its way into the United States - naturally, accidentally, deliberately or by someone engineering a toxic microbial colonist or plant, Vincelli says. Soybean rust, first discovered in this country last fall, is believed to have come into the country either with Hurricane Ivan or naturally. But the most common way is accidentally through trade in plants and plant products, he says.
"Crops and forests are at risk from natural and accidental introductions as well as through deliberate actions," Vincelli says.
That's why early detection and having lots of eyes being ever vigilant is important to reducing the risk, he says. First Detectors are a key to that vigilance.
"Soybean rust is going to allow us to see how we respond to these things," he says. "We are going to be tested, and it is critical we are all on the same page. It will require some quick decisions, and this training provides us with the understanding of the proper steps to be taken. In the case of soybean rust, the key will be getting the information quickly to producers so they can make proper management decisions."
First Detector training included information on the proper protocol for reporting possible finds. The samples are to be taken to the county Extension office, where often the problem can be identified.
If it cannot be identified by an Extension agent then it is forwarded on, in proper packaging, to one of UK's two plant diagnostic labs along with the paperwork detailing where the pest was discovered. If it is believed to be an exotic, or new, pest then the specimen is forwarded on to a U.S. Department of Agriculture lab for final identification. The process is designed to move quickly from one step to the next.
If an exotic is discovered it is up to the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and state regulatory officials to determine whether the pest can be contained, eradicated or if it is "out of the box," Vincelli says.
"Scouting and finding it early are vital because we have the best chance to eradicate it if we find it early," he says. "If we can't eradicate it, then early detection gives us more time to develop pest control measures. The early detection is a fundamental way to reduce agriculture's vulnerability to exotic disease."