Wheat-eating fungus spreads to Iran, fueling “food shock” fears

Just as the UN is warning of a global food shock (in part due to the diversion of croplands into production of “biofuels“), come reports of dangerous new fungus with the ability to destroy entire wheat fields spreading from Africa into Asia. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says the fungus—previously found in East Africa and Yemen—has been detected in Iran, its spores carried by wind across continents. Laboratory tests have confirmed its presence in Broujerd and Hamedan in the country’s west. Up to 80% of all Asian and African wheat varieties are susceptible to the fungus, and major wheat-producing nations to Iran’s east—including Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan—should be on high alert, the FAO warns. “The fungus is spreading rapidly and could seriously lower wheat production in countries at direct risk,” said Shivaji Pandey, director of FAO’s Plant Production and Protection Division.

Iranian authorities say they will bolster research to tackle the new fungus and develop resistant wheat varieties. Called Ug99, the disease first surfaced in Uganda and subsequently spread to Kenya and Ethiopia, with both countries experiencing serious crop yield losses due to the rust epidemic last year. The FAO has also confirmed that a more virulent strain has been found in Yemen.

The Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI)—founded by plant geneticist Norman Borlaug, Cornell University, the Aleppo-based International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and FAO—says it will assist countries in developing resistant wheat varieties. (UN News Center, March 5)

Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, hailed as the father of the Green Revolution, said: “This thing has immense potential for social and human destruction.” A virulent strain of black stem rust fungus (Puccinia graminis), Ug99 has evolved to take advantage of new varieties bred to resist previous strains, and almost no wheat crops anywhere are resistant to it. Scientists who have tracked similar airborne spores in this part of the world say it will now blow into Egypt, Turkey and the Middle East, and on to India—lands where a billion people depend on wheat.

Scientists are now assessing the first Ug99-resistant wheat varieties that might be used for crops. However, it will take another five to eight years to produce enough seed to protect global wheat production. And the threat couldn’t have come at a worse time. Wheat consumption has outstripped production in six of the last seven years, and stocks are at their lowest since 1972. Wheat prices jumped 14% last year. (New Scientist, April 3)

  1. California’s Chinook salmon disappear
    More signs of the coming world protein crash… From the New York Times, March 17:

    Chinook Salmon Vanish Without a Trace

    SACRAMENTO — Where did they go?

    The Chinook salmon that swim upstream to spawn in the fall, the most robust run in the Sacramento River, have disappeared. The almost complete collapse of the richest and most dependable source of Chinook salmon south of Alaska left gloomy fisheries experts struggling for reliable explanations — and coming up dry.

    Whatever the cause, there was widespread agreement among those attending a five-day meeting of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council here last week that the regional $150 million fishery, which usually opens for the four-month season on May 1, is almost certain to remain closed this year from northern Oregon to the Mexican border. A final decision on salmon fishing in the area is expected next month.

    As a result, Chinook, or king salmon, the most prized species of Pacific wild salmon, will be hard to come by until the Alaskan season opens in July. Even then, wild Chinook are likely to be very expensive in markets and restaurants nationwide.

    “It’s unprecedented that this fishery is in this kind of shape,” said Donald McIsaac, executive director of the council, which is organized under the auspices of the Commerce Department.