Wheat Rust Threatens World’s Grain Crops

Most people think of grain maybe once a day, when it’s time to go slap something between two pieces of bread. Only an elite few think about grain enough to worry about what would happen if grain no longer existed!

But that’s been the posture of many agricultural scientists since 1999, when a mutant strain of wheat rust called Ug99 emerged in Uganda and caused them all to start calling the fungus “the polio of agriculture.”

According to The Independent, this disease has spread since then into Central and South Asia, as well as Europe and the Middle East. The fungus is destroying 50 percent or much more of the wheat crops in nation after nation, threatening to decimate the world’s second-most utilized grain, just behind rice.

Comparing wheat rust’s threat to that of a forest fire, Dr. David Hodson, a scientist in Addis Ababa with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, said it has been causing “large-scale destruction in a very short period of time over very large cultivated areas.”

With every growing season, millions of spores go airborne to spread the fungus farther afield.

So what’s the answer? According to Fazil Dusunceli, a scientist with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, “production of new seed varieties is critical” to head off the fungus’s deleterious effects:

“Developed countries have well-established institutions, programs and capacities that developing countries lack. The developing countries are not sufficiently prepared to fight against these diseases and so when epidemics occur they encounter significant losses.”

According to the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative, there are several strains of Ug99-resistant wheat that can be solicited by farmers looking to improve their chances of avoiding a fungal fallout. These strains have either already been released or are in “advanced testing stages.”

And at least partially to blame for the spread of this new mutant fungus, Hodson claims, is climate change:

“Certainly climate change is having an influence, and will have an influence on pests and diseases in terms of shifts in distribution patterns and shifts in the timing of their appearance.”

Nevertheless, at the Global Rust Reference Center in Denmark, work is ongoing to head off any further spread of the fungus. According to its mission statement:

In the past decade, the rapid spread of aggressive strains of yellow rust, and the emergence and spread of Ug99, have demonstrated that only combined, international efforts may solve or reduce these serious problems, which are threatening the daily bread supply in many wheat growing areas in Asia and Africa.

After expanding the activities of the Global Rust Reference Center to stem rust, the next big challenge is to scale up the activities to fight the escalating yellow rust epidemics. This pathogen is evolving so fast and it’s spreading at unprecedented scales throughout most wheat growing areas. The tools, the facilities and the expertise are ready.

[Image courtesy of The Independent]