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Oklahoma State University Institute for Biosecurity and Microbial Forensics Director Kitty Cardwell has been chosen as an International Plant Health Champion by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. (Photo by Todd Johnson, OSU Agricultural Communications Services)

OSU researcher named USDA plant health champion

Monday, November 1, 2021

Media Contact: Alisa Boswell-Gore | Agricultural Communications Services | 405-744-7115 |

Kitty Cardwell, Oklahoma State University’s Institute for Biosecurity and Microbial Forensics director, has been chosen as a plant health champion by the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

APHIS is a U.S. Department of Agriculture organization focused on biosecurity, a system of infrastructure and people that develops strategies and tactical sciences to prevent the spread of pathogens and pests.

Cardwell is one of five national plant health champions selected by APHIS to highlight plant health as part of a larger campaign developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. They declared 2020 the International Year of Plant Health, and the campaign was extended through 2021 due to setbacks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Outreach for biosecurity is building awareness that plants, trees and agriculture are vulnerable to the invasion of exotic insects and pathogens,” Cardwell said. “People are the main movers of these organisms. The way we trade, what happens when people travel, tourism ­— all of these things can move pests and diseases around. The idea of the plant health champion is to educate the public that these things happen and that they can help.”

Before OSU, Cardwell worked in biosecurity for the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. When she joined NIFA in 2001, she and a colleague recommended land-grant university clinics form a network to create a deeper system of detection for new problems within the agricultural industry. These clinics are now located across the nation and supported by USDA funds. OSU is home to two sites: the Plant and Insect Disease Diagnostics Laboratory and the Oklahoma Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory.

In her role as a plant health champion, Cardwell created a promotional video for the campaign to be distributed by USDA and OSU social media.

“There is a pathogen in Oklahoma right now that’s a tree killer that the USDA has been chasing for 15 years, and it has been evading our eradication efforts,” Cardwell said. “We’ve had two major die-offs in our history in which we lost all our chestnuts and elm trees. If something gets into oak, we’re not going to have many trees left. All the tree death events have been because of human movement. We just have to be so careful, but once something gets in, then it’s up to those of us on the ground to be aware and not move it further.”

The spread of pathogens can involve activity as simple as cutting up a dead tree to sell as firewood or buying plants online from outside the country.

“It’s virtually impossible to prevent, so it’s a big problem. It will help us if we have community scientists — people who pay attention. If you see a tree dying, contact your local Extension educator. If you have a plant in your yard that gets sick and starts dying, find the diagnostic lab at the closest university.”

Watch Cardwell's plant health champion video below.

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