14 July, 2010

Stem rust - a serious threat to wheat production

Stem rust is threatening the production of wheat in Africa and Middle East, according to a recent article in the Economist. To summarize the content briefly: stem rust, a devastating plant disease that was the worst wheat disease in the first half of the 20th century, is back and badder than ever. It was thought to have been wiped out in the 1970s as Norman Borlaug discovered a gene that resisted the aforementioned disease. Unfortunately, stem rust evolved to another form, now dubbed Ug99 by FAO (Ug for Uganda, the country of origin; 99 for the year). Ug99 bypasses the previous gene protection and has destroyed even as much as 80-100% of crops it has afflicted in Africa.

So far, it has spread to Middle East and advanced to southern Africa as well. As the picture below portrays, there is a severe risk of stem rust jeopardising the entire wheat production in Africa and severely afflicting Middle East, being a threat even to Pakistan, one of the top 5 wheat producers. With time and a little bit of bad luck, the spores might even be carried with the winds to Australia, the third biggest wheat exporter in the world. Clearly, something most be done to 1) stop this crisis and 2) to prevent future disasters.

Labs around the globe are putting in hours to develop any kind of cure for Ug99, but so far there has been limited success. Even though nine rust-resistant breed have made it into production and distribution, the problem of logistics remains.

Producers in Africa and Asia are poor families with little or no leverage to invest. The cure has to be distributed to them in some way. They cannot afford to buy it from the private sector, and in many places there really aren't any public organizations capable of administering the solution. So far, only 0.1% of wheat area in countries FAO has deemed to be under threat has been planted with rust-resistant varieties.

This really calls for multinational action. Perhaps FAO could organize the distribution itself? After all, Borlaug's new breed spread relatively fast, so it should be possible to achieve a similar result this time. Stem rust threatens as many as 26 countries at the moment - countries that make up about 1/3 of the wheat production in the whole world. I don't care who does it or how it's done, but this crisis has to be stopped before it escalates into full-blown hunger!

Preventing future disasters is a completely different matter. There have been claims for more diverse farming. It is true that the current monoculture enables fast spreading of such diseases, as cops usually involve the same grain and are very large areas. However, there have been also some contradictory opinions especially regarding the development of Ug99. Reader northoldmoss expressed this view in the discussion regarding the source article:
"While Ug99 was discovered in Uganda, it almost certainly did not evolve there. Most probably it originated in the hotbed of wheat variation in traditional farming in Ethiopia - long known for its rich crop genetic resources."
However, the research (that I know of) is not yet decided on the matter. Personally, I'd currently vote for diversity but I guess that's not really a very educated opinion. If anyone has any insight on this matter, I'd be delighted.

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