Global effort aims to tackle deadly wheat fungus

Wheat harvest in Myanmar: the crop is important in many developing countries Copyright: FAO / Bizzarri

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[NAIROBI] Scientists have launched a global effort to tackle a fungus they fear could have a catastrophic effect on world wheat production.

The Global Rust Initiative will implement recommendations made in a report released today (8 September) in Nairobi, Kenya.

The report warns that a strain of the wheat stem rust fungus discovered in Uganda in 1999 will almost certainly spread to the rest of the world, potentially creating a global food-security crisis.

The fungus, whose spores are windborne, infects wheat and can cause losses of up to 70 per cent. The Ugandan strain, Ug99, is of particular concern as it can infect wheat varieties that are resistant to other strains of the fungus.

"It is only a matter of time until Ug99 reaches across the Saudi Arabian peninsula and into the Middle East, South Asia, and eventually, East Asia and the Americas," says Ronnie Coffman of Cornell University, United States, who chaired the panel that prepared the report.

The report says any disruption to wheat supply could have serious consequences in countries such as Pakistan where wheat accounts for 60 per cent of the calories and more than 40 per cent of the protein in the average daily diet.

According to the panel, international collaboration is the only way of facing the threat.

Speaking at the launch, Nobel Prize winning crop scientist Norman Borlaug said that in the 1960s and 1970s, links between researchers in different parts of the world were much stronger than they are now.

"We must go back to that [level of collaboration] if we hope to address this new strain and any other that may arise," he said. "The disease will have serious consequences for small scale farmers who may not have enough funds to spray chemicals."

The panel recommends studying local wheat varieties in the Kenya-Ethiopia region to look for genes that could enable wheat to resist Ug99.

Miriam Kinyua, director of the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute’s centre at Njoro says researchers there have begun working with 4,000 wheat varieties.

The Global Rust Initiative is being led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute and the Ethiopian Agricultural Research Organization.

Link to the full report