A virulent strain of stem rust identified as Ug99 is spreading rapidly through wheat crops in Africa. For decades, this devastating fungal disease has been kept in check thanks to the work of plant breeders like Peace Nobelist Norman Borlaug. As the Washington Post reported earlier this week:
Eighty percent of Asian and African wheat varieties are now susceptible, and so is barley, FAO experts said. Scientists named the new menace Ug99 for its discovery in Uganda in 1999. But they say it probably started earlier in Kenya, where more wheat is grown.
The [International Wheat and Maize] research center in Mexico published a warning of "a pending disaster in global agriculture."…
Unlike common rust infestations, which reduce but do not wipe out yields, stem rust can topple a whole field. "It can take everything," said Robert McIntosh, former director of Australia's rust-control program. "It is the most damaging of the rusts."
As Borlaug warned in a New York Times op/ed last year:
If millions of small-scale farmers see their wheat crops wiped out for want of new disease-resistant varieties, the problem will not be confined to any one country. Rust spores move long distances in the jet streams and know no political boundaries. Widespread failures in global wheat production will push the prices of all foods higher, causing new misery for the world's poor.
Ug99 could reduce world wheat production by 60 million tons.
The good news is that wheat breeders have identified some varieties that contain genes that confer some resistance to the Ug99 strain. The bad news is that wheat breeders have to rely on slower traditional crossbreeding rather than faster modern biotech methods to get the fungus-resistant genes into productive varieties. As Nature reports:
All these approaches will probably rely on traditional breeding methods, and public reluctance about transgenic crops is likely to keep transgenic approaches off the table for some time. In 2004, Monsanto, an agricultural company headquartered in St Louis, Missouri, announced that it was halting development of transgenic herbicide-resistant strains of wheat after US farmers expressed concerns that they would not be able to export the crops to other countries. "The transgenic option is open," says [Beat] Keller [a wheat researcher from the University of Zurich in Switzerland], "but I don't think we're going to see that application very soon."
And just why is the public leery of using genetic engineering to improve crops? Because activist organizations like Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and the Organic Consumers Association, have spent millions on unscientific campaigns (aka spreading lies) about biotech crops.
Let's hope that plant breeders constrained by politicized science will, nevertheless, succeed in developing rust-resistant varieties in time to prevent a stem rust famine.