Wheat on the farm in Bolivar Country, MS. USDA Photo by: Bill Tarpenning
New York, Apr 12 2007 7:00PM
Warning that a virulent new wheat-killing fungus called wheat stem rust could destroy harvests across the globe, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization FAO today said that it has partnered with other organizations to fight the spread of the dangerous strain.
Also known as wheat black rust, the fungus, which first emerged in Uganda in 1999, has spread from East Africa to Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula.
Approximately 80 per cent of all varieties of wheat in Asia and Africa are vulnerable to this new strain which spreads rapidly and is transmitted by the wind across continents and over long distances.
“Global wheat yields could be at risk if the stem rust spreads to major wheat producing countries,” cautioned FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf said.
Destruction of wheat crops, causing billions dollars worth of losses, “could lead to increased wheat prices and local or regional food shortages,” he said.
This could have dire implications for developing countries, he added, since they rely heavily on wheat and do not have access to wheat varieties resistant to the fungus.
FAO has joined forces with the Global Rust Initiative – an international group lead by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center – which receives most of its funding from Canada, the United States and India.
The partnership will assist efforts to develop wheat varieties resistant to the fungus, bolstering plant protection and developing contingency plans in the event of crop infection.
FAO urges countries already affected, particularly Yemen, as well as countries at risk to heighten their surveillance of the rust.
The strain of fungus found in Yemen is already more virulent than the one in East Africa, the agency said, and there is a high risk that Sudan will be affected next.
FAO said there is a possibility that wind currents could carry the fungus spores from Yemen north along the Red Sea to Egypt or through the Saudi Arabian peninsula to the Near East.
In the late 1980s, a similar disease appeared in East Africa, traveling to Yemen, the Near East and Central Asia, finally reaching South Asia in four years. This massive spread resulted in losses in crops worth over $1 billion.