March 06, 2008

Wheat-Decimating Fungus Appears in Southwestern Asia

Puccinia graminis strain Ug99, a particularly virulent strain of the fungus that causes wheat stem rust has made it across the Arabian Peninsula. One variant of Ug99 reported from Kenya last year has already overcome genetically-engineered resistance in its host. As of last December, the strain had jumped across the Red Sea from Ethiopia to Yemen. the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported yesterday that the fungus has now been found in Iran for the first time.

Iran finds wheat fungus, threat to region - FAO

Iran has detected a 'wheat rust' fungus in its crops that poses a potential threat for production there and in surrounding countries, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation said on Wednesday.

Iran informed FAO that it had discovered Ug99 -- a virulent fungus strain first detected in Uganda in 1999 -- in the west of the country...

"Countries east of Iran, like Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, all major wheat producers, are most threatened by the fungus and should be on high alert," FAO said...

The spread of the wheat disease comes as world wheat stocks are already at 30-year lows and prices are soaring to record highs. A researcher at Oregon State University said the U.S. wheat crop could be hit by the fungus within the next four to five years.
The article doesn't specify whether this is normal Ug99 or the even more destructive variant reported from Kenya last year, but that's largely a matter of splitting hairs; plain old Ug99 already has the potential to affect 80% of the world's cultivated wheat. The newly-evolved Kenyan variant might take out another 5 or 10%. Any way you slice it, that's bad news.

I don't know what, if anything, the US is doing about this as a whole, though there must be some research going on here to figure out how to stop the fungus from hitting our own crops. Three to four years isn't a very long time, and fungal spores can certainly travel long distances in a short while. There's not much reason that a fungus that made it to Asia couldn't spring up almost overnight in North America. Even if the US government is worrying about preventing the spread of P. graminis here, though, it would make good sense to be involved with stopping it in Asia before it spreads further into Central Asia and China. Out of purely humanitarian concerns first, but also because a serious wheat shortage could touch off hostilities and cause economic hardships that would affect the whole world. To the extent that the US can be of help — not to take anything away from the Chinese and Japanese, who have much more research in mycology underway than we do — we should be of help, without regard to political considerations.

That last sentence might be asking too much, of course, out of the ideologues we have in command right now. We probably won't do anything about the situation unless and until it becomes a problem right here.

Here is a recent research paper wherein US-cultivated winter wheat varieties are tested for resistance to the new P. graminis strain. The results aren't exactly good news. A 2005 assessment of the risks to various parts of the world and strategies for control is also available. Again, it's not exactly good news for anybody, and hopefully it has been a real wake-up call.

Where things stand at the genetic level can be assessed at the USDA grain genes site.

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