stem rust, stem rust and wheat,
Charlie Riedel/AP

Fungus Threatens Wheat Crops Worldwide

February 23, 2009 08:00 AM
by Cara McDonough
An aggressive version of stem rust, a disease that is ravaging wheat crops in Africa, could spread to American farmlands. Scientists are rushing to find a way to fight it.

Plant Disease Could Cause a Global Crisis

Although stem rust is causing the most havoc in Kenya, where it is running rampant through wheat fields and killing crops, American farmers are not unfamiliar with the virulent plant disease. In the 1950s it destroyed much of the wheat crop in North Dakota and Minnesota, as well as elsewhere in the Great Plains.

The fungus’s main weapon is its rapid spreading power. MinnPost reports that Norman Borlaug, who used techniques he learned at the University of Minnesota to lead the fight against disease in the 20th century, said stem rust can explode to crisis proportions in the right conditions in as little as a year.

It has immense destructive potential,” said Borlaug, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for saving millions from hunger.

Scientists have fought the fungus in the past by developing strains of wheat resistant to it; now, as the modern day stem rust killing wheat in Kenya threatens to spread globally, experts are in a rush to find plants that are resistant to it. But “no reliably resistant variety has been found,” writes Kay Sexton of the environmental politics Web site Red Green and Blue. The “race is on” in laboratories across the world to try and find a solution, she writes.

The threat of stem rust is especially worrisome because wheat is a major source of food worldwide. That’s why wheat experts have “mobilized to fight the rust,” writes MinnPost. The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute is one of the major research centers, and where Borlaug is now working. He put a lot of energy into recruiting other scientists to work on the issue and on raising funds to research stem rust.

Fortunately major contributors see the importance of the research. This year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded $26.8 million to a project on the stem rust problem led by Cornell.

Related Topic: Other plant diseases and pests

The stem rust problem is undoubtedly frightening due to the fungus’s virulence and spreading power, but it is by no means the only threat to crops in recent months.

Liberia has recently been attacked by two different species of crop-destroying caterpillar that destroy native plants like coffee, cocoa, plantains and bananas. The first wave of caterpillars has now moved to the Ivory Coast, doing more damage there.

The Liberian government declared a state of emergency in January and gave a press briefing outlining the infestation problem and its causes, saying that climate change and changes in agricultural production and land use patterns may be contributing factors.

Another crop emergency occurred in East Asia in May when a tiny insect called the brown plant hopper caused extensive damage to rice crops there, compounding what was already a dire global food crisis.

In July, a mysterious disease began killing of Florida’s state tree, the sabal palm. Experts seemed pessimistic about the disease, which caused infected trees to lose all their leaves, and research efforts were slowed by a tight budget.

The recent crop scourges come with their own sets of challenges, but farmers have faced plant diseases throughout the ages, Perhaps the most famous blight was the Irish potato famine that occurred in the 1840s as a result of a fungus that affected potato plants, causing huge implications for the Irish people who were largely dependent on the potato for food.

Reference: Stem rust


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