A university report presented on Wednesday, May 26, prior to the opening of the 8th International Wheat Conference to be held in St. Petersburg, Russia, revealed that a recent strain of a fungus that sprung up in South Africa is directly threatening world wheat crops.
Identified as UG99, the fungus is a variation of the disease commonly known as stem rust that attacks wheat roots and makes them rot. The outcome is devastating: During its latest outbreak––in North America during the early 1950s––the fungus destroyed over 40 percent of yearly crops… The crisis that followed spawned new international scientific cooperation spearheaded by the agronomist Norman Borlaug, and enabled the development of disease-resistant wheat varieties.
The varieties, however, are not resistant to the disease new stem variants, which appear to be more devastating than the original strain. In Kenya for instance, where small quantities of UG99 were detected, the disease turned into epidemic proportions in a single year. First discovered in Uganda in 1999, UG99 was mostly identified in Eastern then Southern Africa, followed by Yemen and Iran. Today, the FAO fears that the fungus might spread towards Asia and reach the major cereal grain belts, such as the Caucasia and the Central Asian republics, before making its way towards the Indian subcontinent and the Americas.
Such predictions are all the more alarming since, if pesticides can halt the spread of the fungus, these are beyond the means of poor farmers who largely populate Asian countries… And the development of a wheat variety resistant to the strain will take at least a few years.
Wheat is the primary source of calories for millions of people worldwide. It represents 30 percent of global grain production and 20 percent of the daily food intake for the world population. The advent of these mutant stems is thus a serious challenge for the international community, all the more so since it initially affects the nations with a high level of food insecurity.