New wheat pathogen threatens world food security


A new rapidly-evolving pathogen spreading in east Africa could annihilate wheat plantations worldwide, posing a "catastrophic" threat to crops unless steps are taken quickly.

The genetically-variable stem rust strain, dubbed Ug99 after its discovery in Uganda in 1999, has moved into neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia, where it has nearly affected all plantations and could spread further, scientists warned Thursday.

"The risk and losses will be tremendous if this gets on the loose," said US botanist and 1970 Nobel peace laureate Norman Borlaug.

Borlaug, now 91, who helped develop resistant wheat varieties 50 years ago, urged a restoration of the cooperation that helped suppress a stem rust outbreak in North America that destroyed nearly 70 percent of wheat plantations in 1950.

"The stem rust strains are changing through mutation ... coming up with new types," he told a news conference in Nairobi to release a report on the problem compiled by experts organized by the International Centre for Maize and Wheat Improvement (CIMMYT).

"Maybe we got too complacent," he said. "We have to restore the cooperation (as the current threat) is potentially more serious than it was 40 to 50 years ago."

The report warns that wheat production could decline by nearly 60 million tonnes -- a tenth of world's supply -- if Ug99's miniature fungal spores are spread to Asia and the western hemisphere.

"It is only a matter of time until Ug99 -- which also affects barley -- reaches across the Saudi Arabian peninsula and into the Middle East, South Asia and eventually the Americas," said Ronnie Coffman, a plant geneticist at Cornell University in New York.

Should the Ug99 spores spread to Asia, they could have serious consequences for countries like Pakistan, where wheat accounts for 60 percent of calories and more than 40 percent of proteins in an average diet in a day, the report said.

"This could be catastrophic," said CIMMYT director Masa Iwanaga, adding that researchers were working to develop a Ug99 resistant wheat variety. "It could affect food security worldwide."

"The current crisis is a wake-up call about the continuing and potentially devastating impact the rust pathogens can have on susceptible cereals, and especially a staple food like wheat," Borlaug wrote in a forward to the report.

© 2005 AFP

Peace - Anna

"What lies before us and what lies behind us are small matters compared to what lies within us. And when we bring what is within out into the world, miracles happen." -- Henry David Thoreau


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