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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Systematics Solves Problems in Agriculture and Forestry
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by Amy Y. Rossman and Douglass R. Miller

Published as: Rossman, A. Y. and D. R. Miller. 1996. Ann. Missouri Bot. Gard. 83:17-28.

subalpine meadowIn forest and agricultural ecosystems the conspicuous elements, namely the trees, crop plants, and farm animals, form complex interactions with many less conspicuous organisms. These less conspicuous but specious organisms such as insects, fungi, nematodes, and bacteria can be beneficial, even essential, or they can be utterly devastating causing billions of dollars damage. Our present knowledge of the systematics of these less conspicuous organisms is limited. For some groups even the most elemental systematic understanding--an inventory, a checklist, a means of identification is lacking. This paper presents examples in which systematics has contributed to solving a problem in agriculture and forestry. Our current agricultural practices reflect the systematic understanding of pest organisms that influence crop productivity. The success of efforts to discover and develop biological agents that control agricultural pests and pathogens depends on systematics. International exchange of agricultural commmodities can be enhanced or hindered by accurate or inaccurate systematic knowledge as exemplified by the recently opened market for California wheat to the People's Republic of China. Systematics is essential in directing the collection, organization, and use of vascular plant germplasm as for breeding improved crops. Forests in eastern North America have been devastated by the introduction of exotic pests and pathogens. Systematic knowledge helps to prevent such introductions. In Australia native forests threatened with extinction from an introduced weed were saved by the biological control of that weed using a fungus. Detailed systematic knowledge of both the host and pathogen allowed the safe and effective introduction of this biocontrol agent. In all the examples detailed in this paper, basic systematic knowledge was essential to solving important problems in agriculture and forestry.

We thank the following systematists who contributed ideas and information to this paper: Marc Cubeta, North Carolina State University, Plymouth, North Carolina; Harry Evans, International Biocontrol Institute, Silwood, England; and David Spooner, USDA-Agricultural Research Service, Vegetable Crops Research Unit, Madison, Wisconsin.

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