Dual-purpose infrastructure is an attractive option because it avoids several drawbacks of constant pandemic preparedness, such as the need for a huge stockpile of equipment and reagents with finite shelf lives and associated storage costs, the need for infrastructure that stands idle most of the time, the need to retain and train staff, and the need for regular ‘war games’ to test response capability. Agtech infrastructure for crop and animal breeding, crop disease management and seed testing provides not only the equivalent of peacetime infrastructure that can be redeployed to emergency biomedical use in a pandemic situation, but also the capacity to handle future outbreaks more effectively. We should develop contingency protocols for such facilities allowing them to switch to pandemic response mode.
High-throughput laboratory-based screening first emerged with plant breeders like Downey and Stefansson, who screened tens of thousands of seed samples in the 1960s to produce modern canola varieties. In the modern era, high-throughput screening has become a routine breeding approach, as seen with Monsanto’s strategy to separate diploid and haploid maize seeds based on their differing oil content16. Agtech entered the digital era of high-throughput screening more than a decade ago, with the realization that a combination of remote and in-field sensing, high-throughput data analysis and confirmatory molecular testing (PCR, DNA sequencing, antibody-based detection and liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry) could be used for in-field plant phenotyping and input allocation, disease management, molecular breeding and the development of new cultivars17. Advances in medical applications have seen parallel advances in agriculture, such as the rapid adoption of genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, metabolomics, gene editing, bioinformatics, cell-based assays and high-content image analysis18.
It is paramount that we recognize that pandemics and epidemics are not limited to humans, but can also affect other animals and plants19,20. There is often a severe impact on food security and human health, as historically seen in the famines caused by potato blight (Phytophthora infestans)21 in the 1840s and the epizootic rinderpest virus22 in the 1890s. The Great Famine caused by potato blight in Ireland (1845–1849) led to one million deaths and caused another million people to emigrate, and the spread of potato blight in Europe claimed another 100,000 lives. The introduction of rinderpest virus to sub-Saharan Africa was even more devastating, killing ~90% of infected cattle as well as many sheep, goats and the oxen used by farmers for ploughing, and also killing off swathes of wild buffalo and wildebeest, leaving no animals to farm, herd or hunt. The resulting famine killed millions, including one-third of the population of Ethiopia and two-thirds of the Maasai. The loss of grazing animals also changed the grasslands into thickets that allowed the tsetse fly to breed, resulting in a more human deaths caused by sleeping sickness23. A more recent example of epizootic disease was an outbreak consisting of more than 2,000 cases of foot and mouth disease in the United Kingdom in 2001, which prompted the slaughter of more than six million cattle and sheep at a cost of over $11 billion24.
Agtech infrastructure used to facilitate plant breeding and biosecurity surveillance could easily be adapted for medical screening (Fig. 1). However, the scale of routine agtech is much larger than standard healthcare screening because plant breeding involves hundreds of thousands of samples that must be processed rapidly to accommodate at least two and up to three cycles of selection based on genotyping and phenotyping per year, following approaches such as Borlaug’s shuttle breeding strategy25. Furthermore, the use of agtech as part of an integrated biosecurity program to monitor pests and diseases in the field provides a high degree of overlap in terms of equipment, reagents and expertise with the resources needed to manage human epidemics and pandemics. For example, surveillance programs are in place and constantly active to monitor animal diseases such as African swine fever. This disease has broken out in China and devastated their domestic pork production industry26, and entry into North America would have devastating consequences27. The testing capacity built into these programs could be switched over to monitor human diseases in the event of an epidemic or pandemic outbreak. This would be one way to bring big ships rather than small boats to the international effort against pandemic human diseases.