New York Times Dot Earth Update on Wheat Stem Rust Menace

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New York Times science reporter Andrew Revkin reports on the findings of an urgent meeting of crop scientists in Mexico on how to handle the spreading menace of a new wheat fungal disease.

wheat rust

The fungus Ug99 is spreading in Africa and Iran now and could go worldwide soon. As Revkin reports:

…scientists at the meeting, held at a branch of the nonprofit  International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, estimated that 90 percent of the wheat varieties planted by farmers around the world lack resistance to the rust variant, called Ug99 after its discovery in Uganda in 1999. But the scientists said that new wheat varieties (small pdf), developed as a result of an aggressive international breeding project, are not only resistant to the fungus but produce better yields than many conventional wheat types. The effort to develop and test the new strains has involved shuttling them from research centers in Syria and Mexico back to test plots in Africa, according to the organizers of the conference.

As Revkin explains, the researchers have identified genes that confer resistance to the fungus on wheat and are engaged in a crash program using conventional crop breeding methods to create new rust-resistant varieties. As I reported earlier the researchers are constrained to use conventional methods because of opposition by activists to using faster modern biotech gene-transfer techniques. 

Visit Revkin's Dot Earth blog here for more details.