Tanii Akio and the Fire Blight: A Tragedy at the Confluence of Science and International Trade

Apple tree foliage scorched by fire blight. Photograph by Paethon, from Wikipedia.

The past few years have made painfully obvious the fact that science does not exist in the vacuum it is idealized to be. With funding from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health becoming increasingly scarce, combined with an often skeptical outlook on science from the lay public, the idea that science is a bounded field that stands, or ought to stand, above the petty affairs of culture and politics is obsolete. Rather, as we’ve learned throughout our Disease Ecology course, informed policy decisions have to make compromises between scientific, economic, and ethical considerations, for better or worse.

Unfortunately, these external influences can obstruct change based on legitimate scientific findings. One particularly tragic story is that of Tanii Akio, a Japanese plant scientist, and his work on what was then called ‘bacterial shoot blight of pear’ (BSBP) in Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s four major islands. The novel disease’s symptoms were remarkably similar to fire blight, a disease of fruit trees caused by the bacterium Erwinia amylovora. Native to North America but introduced worldwide via infected plants, E. amylovora causes devastating losses in pear and apple orchards, as well as in other less important crops such as quince and raspberry. Bacteria are spread by rain, wind, and insects, invading through small openings in the leaves and causing infected plant parts to wilt and blacken.

The life cycle of Erwinia amylovora, the causative agent of fire blight. By Vickie Brewster, from Utah State Extension.
The life cycle of Erwinia amylovora, the bacterium that causes fire blight. By Vickie Brewster, from Utah State Extension.

Because of its highly contagious nature, the few countries in which fire blight has not been introduced protect their crops by imposing trade restrictions on fruit imports that might harbor E. amylovora. Japan had long claimed to be one such country, and as a result the Japanese apple market was insulated from all apple suppliers except domestic growers. This proved especially vexatious for American farmers, who were able to export hundreds of millions of quality fruit all over the world—except into Japan, which implemented an unusual and expensive vetting process and allowed a very limited intake of just a few apple varieties (which *just* happened to be unsuited to the Japanese palate).

Tanii Akio’s work, however, ultimately provided the final push that abolished his own country’s trade barriers to foreign apples. After he and a colleague described the novel fire blight-like disease in 1981, they were both pressured to name the disease BPSP and stop their research. The samples they sent to a lab for preservation and follow-up mysteriously vanished. And their manuscript, published in Japanese, went unknown to a wider international audience until 1992, when a scientist at Cornell University, Steven Beer, found it through an English translation of a then newly-published Japanese textbook.

With assistance from Tanii, Beer was able to prove conclusively that this BPSP was merely a Japanese strain of Erwinia amylovora, exposing BPSP as a convenient euphemism for the dreaded fire blight. When he presented his results at a conference in August 1995, Australian officials swiftly halted imports of Japanese apples. In retaliation for what they saw as a humiliating and politically motivated attack, Japanese officials and farmers alike blamed the well-meaning Tanii for their troubles. Tanii Akio took his own life by drinking pesticide on October 11, 1995, his reputation and hard-earned career ruined by the very people he had tried to help in his job.

The fire blight controversy Tanii and Beer raised, however, forced Japan to more openly address the issue of its domestic fire-blight after years of obstructing investigation by outside reviewers and subjecting American growers to excessively stringent standards for their fruits. But even after a joint Japanese-American collaboration proved that healthy American apples had an almost zero chance of introducing fire blight, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture stubbornly refused to amend its import restrictions.  Only when the United States filed and won a case against Japan in the World Trade Organization did Japan finally remove barriers to American apples in the early 2000s.

Sadly, this biologist and his valuable but forbidden discovery seem to have been all but forgotten by many scientists in the Western Hemisphere. I retell this story not only as a cautionary tale of what bureaucracy can do to obstruct science, progress, and justice, but also in admiration of an individual who was scapegoated, made to confront this ugliness alone—and lost.

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