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Plant Disease Devastating Vegetable Crops in Eastern U.S.

by: David Gutierrez

(NaturalNews) The same infectious fungus that caused the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s is now spreading across the Northeastern United States, causing alarm among farmers and raising the specter of another spike in food prices.

"People need to realize this is probably one of the worst diseases we have in the vegetable world," said plant pathologist Meg McGrath of Cornell University. "It's certain death for a tomato plant."

McGrath referred to the fungus, known as late blight, as "worse than the Bubonic Plague for plants."

Although not harmful to humans, late blight spreads easily between infected plants, whether in fields or on the shelves of a garden supply store. Although fungicides can be used to control it if applied before symptoms appear, it is considered far more reliable to remove and destroy any infected plant as quickly and completely as possible.

Late blight appears in the Northeast with some regularity, but this year the outbreak has been fueled by rainy weather and the proliferation of big-box stores with massive garden sections. The fungus has already been identified in Alabama, Ohio, Vermont, West Virginia and every East Coast state with the exception of Georgia.

In response to the outbreak, Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe's and Wal-Mart have pulled all tomato plants from their New England and New York stores. It is still unclear whether the fungus has gained a significant foothold in agricultural fields, but growers are worried. Because containing a late blight outbreak is expensive, widespread contamination could lead to a significant jump in food prices.

Agricultural investigators are still trying to determine where the outbreak started. They are urging gardeners to keep alert for any signs of late blight in their plants. The first symptoms are usually brown spots on the stems, followed by the development of nickel-sized brown or olive-green spots on the tops of leaves and a fuzzy white growth on leaf bottoms.

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