Wednesday, June 29, 2011

New rust resistant wheat hopes to improve food security

Scientists say they have developed a new wheat strain that is resistant to the disease UG99. The new strain of wheat could prove important in proving food security around the world. Wheat is very susceptible to the effects of climate change while rice and maize yields might be able to improve. A failed wheat harvest in Russia is one of the contributing factors to the record high food prices we are seeing now.

From Reuters Alert Net, writer Soumya Karlamangla describes the disease and the hopes that scientists have for the new wheat strain.

Ug99, a virulent strain of wheat stem rust discovered over a decade ago, could potentially damage up to 90 percent of the world’s wheat crop, particularly as changing climatic patterns carry it to new regions, the scientists warned. That is a serious problem as world demand for food is surging, particularly as incomes and appetites grow in emerging giants like China and India.

But new varieties should help defuse the threat, say the scientists, who have been working to stay one step ahead of the pest.

“Stem rust is devastating - it’s the source of the great biblical plagues,” said Ronnie Coffman, principal investigator of the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat Project, an effort aiming to combat wheat crop diseases, and director of International Programs of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University.


Since it was discovered in East Africa in 1998, Ug99 has been detected in nearly a dozen nations in Africa and the Middle East. It is a dangerous epidemic; in the early 1950s, a major outbreak of stem rust destroyed 40 percent of North America’s spring wheat crop.

Now, scientists aim to create and distribute resistant strains before the disease makes its way to the world’s breadbaskets located throughout Africa, North and South America, the Indian subcontinent and Australia.

With progress on new varieties well advanced, Coffman said, the main challenge will be getting farmers in areas yet to be affected by stem rust to plant the resistant varieties.

The new varieties offer some side benefits: an increase in crop yields of 15 percent and resistance to yellow rust, a less damaging pest that is currently hurting crop yields in Africa and the Middle East.

Coffman hopes these added factors will help win over governments and farmers. If not, a reduction in the production of wheat - the world’s most widely grown crop and the number one staple for a third of the world’s population - could wreak havoc on the already tight global food supply.

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