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)