- Experts in Europe and Africa are racing to develop resistant grain varieties as university researchers predict the likely spread across continents of the air-borne spores of the fungus
By Christy Chamy
20 April 2014
Scientists are warning that wheat is facing a serious threat from a fungal disease that could wipe out the world’s crop if not quickly contained. Wheat rust, a devastating disease known as the “polio of agriculture”, has spread from Africa to South and Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe, with calamitous losses for the world’s second most important grain crop, after rice. There is mounting concern at the dangers posed to global food security.
Experts have been aware of the threat since a major epidemic swept across North America’s wheat belt in the 1950s, destroying up to 40 per cent of the crop. Since then, tens of millions of pounds have been invested in developing rust-resistant varieties of the grain. However, an outbreak in Uganda in 1999 was discovered to have been caused by a virulent mutation of the fungus. There has been alarm at the speed at which further mutations have subsequently developed and spread across continents.
Plant scientists in Britain estimate the latest developments mean that 90 per cent of all current African wheat varieties are now vulnerable to the disease.
Last year, Germany witnessed its first outbreak of stem rust in more than 50 years. The outbreak was spurred by “a period of unusually high temperatures and an unusually late development of the wheat crop due to cold spring and early summer temperatures”, explained Kerstin Flath, of Germany’s Federal Research Centre for Cultivated Plants.