May 12, 2024

Feeding for resilience: The role of nutrients in plant health

On International Day of Plant Health, we explore how balanced crop nutrition fortifies plant health against disease outbreaks and lessens their severity.

Field fertigation in India

This year, we observe International Day of Plant Health - commemorated on May 12 to raise global awareness on the protection of plant health from pests and disease – by looking at the role crop nutrition can play in both avoiding or delaying the outbreak of diseases, as well as reducing their intensity. 

Just as humans need a balanced diet to thrive, plants require essential nutrients to support their growth and resilience. At Yara, agronomists deliver the best crop nutrition recommendations and solutions to farmers, supporting plant growth, development, and resistance to diseases and pests.

Nutrients enhance plant defenses 

Nutrients support plant health in many ways. The simplest of these is how nutrients facilitate plant growth, and by doing so, shorten the susceptible growth stage. When struck by disease, plants immediately react and form metabolites that chemically or mechanically help to fight against the disease.

Plants produce phytochemicals to help them resist fungi, bacteria, and virus infections. Phenolic compounds play a major role in the induction of resistance in plants. For example, lignin is built to form stronger cell walls preventing a fungus from penetrating too easily. Additionally, phenolic compounds act as signaling molecules enhancing the plant defense system. These remarkable defense measures of the plant are only efficient with a sufficient supply of nutrients.

Woman handling Yara Rega

The case of Fusarium wilt

Fusarium wilt is a devastating disease that is caused by the Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. cubense fungus. The latest race of the fungus, Fusarium Tropical race 4 (Fusarium TR4), is a soil-borne pathogen which attacks the roots of banana crop and results in clogging the plant’s vascular system. Fusarium TR4 is so potent that once it is established in a field, it can lead to complete yield loss. 

This strain has so far been detected in 22 out of 135 banana-producing countries, including Turkey, Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela. About 80% of global banana production is thought to be susceptible to Fusarium TR4. Furthermore, estimates project that as much as 17% of current banana production could be affected by the pest by 2040, which could lead to potential losses of about $10 billion. 

Banana washing and selection in Brazil

It is common practice for farmers to turn to pesticides when faced with threats of this nature. However, pathogens like Fusarium wilt are difficult to control with chemicals, as they dwell deep in the soil up to 1 meter and live in the soil for long periods of time – up to 20 years. Fusarium wilt is an example of a disease where crop nutrition should be part of an integrated long-term disease management approach. 

Crop nutrition and Fusarium wilt 

In literature, higher levels of Fusarium wilt in banana are consistently associated with lower pH values and Urea and NH4-N applications. Yara conducted two greenhouse trials in collaboration with Wageningen University and Research (WUR) to study the effect of the NH4-N/NO3-N ratios on the infection level. Results revealed that the TR4 infection level was decreased with an increasing share of NO3-N. Recently, a field trial was launched in the Philippines to study the effect of Nitrogen form and balanced nutrition on the disease severity of Fusarium wilt TR4.

These studies, and others, show that a balanced and sufficient supply of nutrients is crucial to sustain plant health.

At Yara, our combination of agronomic knowledge, digital tools and premium fertilizer enable us to support farmers worldwide optimize yields, enhance soil health, and produce healthier crops.

Farmers assessing banana plant health