THE science behind the home pregnancy test is now being trialled to detect the presence of diseases which can devastate fields of vegetable crops, including the Christmas sprout.

Currently trials are underway to help protect crops of Brassicas - sprouts, broccoli, cabbage - and onions, which generated more than £356 million for UK agriculture last year. Diseases include ring rot, light leaf spot and downy mildew are being monitored.

Ring spot in Brassicas is a foliar disease, which if not treated can lead to the loss of 30 per cent of the crop. Downy mildew in onions can cause damage of up to 50 per cent of individual crops if severe and, in a particularly bad year, the whole industry could see crop losses of up to 25 per cent. This same disease could wipe out a whole field of salad onions, with one hectare worth around £30,000.

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The test, known as a lateral flow device (LFD), picks up the presence of infective spores carried in the air around crops in the field. Used alongside weather data, test results could indicate how likely a disease is to develop, allowing growers to decide if crop protection methods are needed or not.

Further development work is underway, so growers can gain immediate results, without needing to send samples to laboratories for further testing.

In addition to the common pregnancy test, LFDs are used to detect human diseases including colo-rectal cancer, cardiac issues and drug abuse screening.

AHDB (Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board) Senior Scientist, Cathryn Lambourne said: "When it's fully developed this simple low-cost tool, allowing growers to test whether there is a risk of diseases developing on their crops, will help prevent significant financial losses and reduce the need for conventional methods to protect their crops.

"Over the last four years we've been developing the LFD test, demonstrating how simple and effective it is, to give growers the confidence to rely on the results and make appropriate decisions for their business."

A long period between the disease affecting the crop and the symptoms appearing are a characteristic of many of the diseases tested.

Carl Sharp, Agronomist at the Allium and Brassica Centre, said: "This could be a big game changer for growers. If we can get kit like this developed to take out with us, within ten minutes of walking into a field, growers will have results which show what they need to do to protect their crops.

"Using these tests will allow us to select the appropriate fungicide and time application as part of our crop management strategy, before the disease renders any of the crops unmarketable."