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A windfall of US$40 million to fund global research on a deadly strain of wheat rust that is threatening the world's wheat supply was announced yesterday by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK Department for International Development (DFID).

It is part of a new collaboration between the two organisations that will see US$102 million invested into agricultural research and the rollout of technologies to small farmers to help manage crop diseases and food security over the next five years.

Cornell University in the United States will receive US$25 million from the foundation and US$15 million from DFID over five years, for research on wheat varieties resistant to emerging strains of stem rust disease such as Ug99 which, began in Uganda and is spreading. It is now found in Ethiopia, Iran, Kenya, Sudan, and Yemen.

"Against the backdrop of rising food prices and wheat in particular, researchers worldwide will be able to play an increasingly vital role in protecting wheat fields from dangerous new forms of stem rust," said Ronnie Coffman, principal investigator at Cornell's Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) project.

DRRW, led by Cornell, involves 18 universities and research institutes around the world including national research centres in Ethiopia and Kenya, the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas in Syria and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). 

It also collaborates with scientists and farmers in 40 countries where new stem rust resistant varieties have been distributed for testing and evaluation.

Andrew Bennett, president of the Tropical Agricultural Association, told SciDev.Net: "There is a need to move very quickly. Rusts like Ug99 mutate fast and are carried on the wind. Ug99 has already arrived in Iran and it is not a great distance to get to Pakistan and India, the bread basket of South Asia. It is very important that resistant material is not only developed but deployed."

Leaf and stripe (yellow) rust also threaten wheat crops. But virulent stem rusts such as Ug99 are the most feared because they can quickly lead to the loss of an entire harvest.

The Global Cereal Rust Monitoring System at the FAO in Rome suggests that Ug99 variants are also threatening major wheat-growing areas of southern and eastern Africa, the Central Asian Republics, the Caucasus, the Indian subcontinent, South America, North America and Australia.

George Rothschild, chair of the European Forum for Agricultural Research for Development (EFARD) and a former head of the International Rice Research Institute, told SciDev.Net: "It is an exciting initiative to see substantial resources going into this research at a time when resources are very, very tight."

But he warned that such plant diseases tend to evolve rapidly, because there is a need for a broad range of rust-resistant wheat varieties, both traditional and genetically engineered.

Scientists and policymakers "must make sure they don't end up with a dominant variety or one strain" which would accelerate the development of resistance.

"Getting resistant crops out there is very important but in doing that it is vital that farmers do not give up their traditional varieties. The traditional varieties can be used as basis to cross-breed using the resistant genes to get the anti-rust properties in," Rothschild said.

Andrew Bennett is the chair of SciDev.Net's board of trustees.