Truth to Power

Are we about to lose wheat?

Wheat fungus threatens global crops

A devastating strain of stem rust (Puccinia graminis), a fungus that infects wheat, is moving out of Africa towards wheat growing regions on other continents. Called Ug99, it was identified in Uganda and classified in 1999. This week, experts are meeting in Ciudad Obregón, Mexico, to discuss how to tackle the rust, which is currently found in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen and Iran.

In the developing world, there is the possibility of tremendous loss of livelihood, hunger and malnutrition, because wheat is one of the most important crops in the world. In the subcontinent of Asia alone, perhaps 50 million farm families depend on wheat. And it has tremendous economic implications for the developed world.

Why didn’t scientists anticipate that a strain of stem rust could overcome normally resistant wheat?

HJB: That Ug99 came out of Africa was by no means a surprise. We knew that central Africa is the source of new races of rust. For this reason, CIMMYT kept a research base in Kenya until the mid-1980s to get an early warning. We cannot breed for a hypothetical rust, but we can monitor whether new races are coming up.

Then, in the mid 1980s when there was plenty of food produced, there was little interest by donors to invest in agricultural research. Due to funding reductions, CIMMYT could not maintain its rust research project in Kenya and the programme was closed. Ug99 to a great extent is the consequence of taking money away from agricultural research.</em>

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