October 5, 2010

Stem Rust threatens Global Wheat Production

HEALTH/TECHNOLOGY - A virulent form of fungus / stem rust known as Ug99 (it was first discovered in Uganda) is now threatening the world's wheat production. Wheat in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Iran and South Africa are already infected.

Scientists fear the fungus will show up in India and Pakistan soon and eventually travel to North America, effecting wheat production in Canada and the United States.

The good news is that wheat farmers in North America at least have the option of buying stem rust resistant breeds of wheat, and scientists are working to genetically create new breeds of wheat which are even more resistant to stem rust. We also have access to fungicides to combat the stem rust.

But overseas such stem rust resistant wheat doesn't exist yet and the seeds are expensive, and the fungicide and the machinery needed to spray fungicide isn't really available. As it currently stands 80% of the world's wheat production is vulnerable to Ug99.

Ug99 is a strain of stem rust fungi that eats its way into the tissues of wheat and barley, eventually killing the plant by sucking nutrients and water from the plant. The plant shrivels, shrinks and then dies. The fungus spores germinate quickly and it only takes 10 to 14 days for a single spore to reproduce and make thousands of more spores.

Since its discovery and spreading chaos scientists are in “a race against time” to develop new strains that are resistant to the fungus because the spores easily spread due to wind patterns.

Scientists working at the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat Project at Cornell University say it will likely take between 8 to 10 years to create a new line of genetically modified wheat and have it ready for farmers.

The real worry say scientists is the possibility of a wheat shortage, skyrocketing wheat prices and “geopolitical repercussions”.

The last time there was a stem rust outbreak it was 1916, during which wheat prices skyrocketed to $3 USD / bushel (approx. $60 USD today).

Grain prices are already pretty high due to the biodiesel industry, which has sparked food riots in North Africa and the Middle East.

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