Wheat experts warn of disease threat

March 18, 2009 12:00 am

, MEXICO CITY, Mar 18 – A virulent strain of an old plant disease is threatening wheat production worldwide, experts warned in Mexico Tuesday, but they also reported progress in developing new varieties to try to beat it.

The dangerous new form of stem rust — known as Ug99 for its discovery in Uganda 10 years ago — has already spread across East Africa and the Middle East toward South Asia, according to research presented at the start of a four-day international meeting in Ciudad Obregon.

Ninety percent of the varieties planted around the world lack resistance to the reddish, wind-borne fungus that is already well established in Kenya, where it has decimated 80 percent of wheat in some areas, the experts said.

"That’s the level you can expect," said Ravi Singh, a wheat geneticist and pathologist from the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.

Scientists led by Singh announced a breakthrough in their efforts to develop new varieties of wheat that are not only resistant to Ug99, but also produce more grain than today’s most popular varieties.

Averting a crisis will require farmers to replace their existing varieties with resistant ones, even though they may not face an immediate threat, the experts said, pointing to a campaign underway in India to persuade farmers to switch.

"It’s important to get something done before it hits," Singh told AFP.

Stem rust has plagued wheat farmers for thousands of years, but for the last 50 years it was largely under control thanks to resistant varieties developed by scientists led by pioneering US agronomist Norman Borlaug.

Their work, undertaken in Mexico, is credited with launching a "green revolution" that saved billions from starvation across the world and won Borlaug a Nobel Peace Prize.

"Our scientists are making incredibly rapid progress, but we should have no illusions: a global food crisis is still a distinct possibility if governments and international institutions fail to support this rescue mission," Borlaug said in a statement Tuesday.


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