Wheat disease threatens supplies
By David R. Sands
May 9, 2008

A lethal variant on an ancient disease affecting wheat has spread from its base in Africa to Iran and now threatens vast fields in South Asia, the Middle East and Europe at a time of global food shortages, agricultural specialists warn.

The new strain of wheat-stem rust, first identified in Uganda nine years ago, is threatening crops during a global crisis over rising food prices, depleted reserves, rising agricultural trade barriers and violent food-related protests on four continents.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported in early March that the new wheat fungus had been found in fields in western Iran far earlier than computer models anticipated, perhaps carried on the high winds generated by Cyclone Gonu in June. The geographical leap means that the spread of the disease to countries such as Pakistan and India may be just a matter of time.

"The detection of the wheat-rust fungus in Iran is very worrisome," Shivaji Pandey, director of the FAO's Plant Production and Protection Division, said in early March. "The fungus is spreading rapidly and could seriously lower wheat production in countries at direct risk."

Wheat represents nearly a third of the world grain-crop production and a fifth of the world's caloric intake, but soaring prices and competition for land from biofuels have left reserves low and prices high. Wheat hit a record $13.49 a bushel in February, up 67 percent in just 12 months.

In part because of rising global demand, drought and natural disasters, prices have been soaring for several staple foods, including rice, corn and soybeans. Many developing countries face intense pressures to restrain food prices and ensure adequate stocks of staple goods.

The Asian Development Bank said this week that more than 1 billion Asians may sink back into extreme poverty without extra aid to counter soaring food prices.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has become increasingly outspoken about the threat to the international system from the crisis in agriculture.

"If not properly handled, this crisis could cascade into multiple crises affecting trade, development and even social and political security around the world. The livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people are threatened," he told reporters in New York after a fact-finding trip on the food crisis to Africa and Europe.

The East African stem rust, which is resistant to two main genetic defenses bred into 90 percent of the world's grain crop, could pose a greater risk to stability in the Middle East than the Iranian missile program, the Iraq war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to the Middle East Times.

"All these threats pale almost into insignificance by comparison with the confirmation [that the wheat-rust strain] has crossed the Red Sea," the journal said in an editorial last month.

Stem-rust diseases have long been a bane of wheat harvesters. The ancient Romans prayed to a god named Robigus to protect their crops from the disease. As recently as the early 1950s, nearly half of the U.S. and Canadian spring wheat crop was lost to an attack of stem rust.

The "Green Revolution" of the second half of the 20th century benefited from more productive strands of wheat and from the development of new wheat variations that were bred specifically to resist stem rust.

U.S. agronomist Norman Borlaug, who earned a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for helping foster the Green Revolution, has been outspoken about the dangers posed by the new wheat-rust strain.

Mr. Borlaug said the new fungus variations originating in Uganda in 1999 are "much more dangerous" than the earlier stem-rust strains.

"The rust pathogens recognize no political boundaries, and their spores need no passport to travel thousands of miles in the jet streams," the 94-year-old researcher said at a recent conference on the wheat crisis in northern Mexico.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation last month approved a $26.8 million grant to Cornell University, working with 15 research partners in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and East Asia, to deal with the global menace.

The research partnership will focus on developing new wheat strains resistant to the disease.

"Farmers need access to wheat varieties that can resist the new type of wheat-stem rust, especially in developing nations where reliance on wheat is high and budgets for fungicides almost nonexistent," Ronnie Coffman, director of the Cornell project, said in a statement.

Researchers say a solution may be more urgent, given the discovery in March in Iran.

Original article: Worthy News
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