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April 27, 2008

Coordinated research effort required to combat wheat stem rust

By orman E. Borlaug

With food prices soaring throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America, and shortages threatening hunger and political chaos, the time could not be worse for an epidemic of stem rust in the world’s wheat crops. Yet millions of wheat farmers, small and large, face this spreading and deadly crop infection.

The looming catastrophe can be avoided if the world’s wheat scientists pull together to develop a new generation of stem-rust-resistant varieties of wheat. But scientists must quickly turn their attention to replacing almost all of the commercial wheat grown in the world today. This will require a commitment from many nations, especially the United States, which has lately neglected its role as a leader in agricultural science.

Stem rust, the most feared of all wheat diseases, can turn a healthy crop of wheat into a tangled mass of stems that produce little or no grain. The fungus spores travel in the wind, causing the infection to spread quickly. It has caused major famines since the beginning of history. In North America, huge grain losses occurred in 1903 and 1905 and from 1950 to ’54.

During the 1950s, I and other scientists, first in North America and later throughout the world, developed high-yielding wheat varieties that were resistant to stem rust and other diseases. These improved seeds not only enabled farmers around the world to hold stem rust at bay for more than 50 years but also allowed for greater and more dependable yields. Indeed, with this work, global food supplies rapidly increased and prices dropped.

From 1965 to 1985, the heyday of the Green Revolution, world production of cereal grains — wheat, rice, corn, barley and sorghum — nearly doubled, from 1 billion to 1.8 billion metric tons, and cereal prices dropped by 40 percent.

Today, wheat provides about 20 percent of the food calories for the world’s people. The world wheat harvest now stands at about 600 million metric tons.

In the last decade, global wheat production has not kept pace with rising population, or the increasing per capita demand for wheat products in newly industrializing countries. At the same time, international support for wheat research has declined significantly. And as a consequence, in 2007-08, world wheat stocks (as a percentage of demand) dropped to their lowest level since 1947-48. And prices have steadily climbed to the highest level in 25 years.

The new strains of stem rust, called Ug99 because they were discovered in Uganda in 1999, are much more dangerous than those that, 50 years ago, destroyed as much as 20 percent of the American wheat crop. Today’s lush, high-yielding wheat fields on vast irrigated tracts are ideal environments for the fungus to multiply, so the potential for crop loss is greater than ever.

If publicly financed international researchers move together aggressively and systematically, high-yielding replacement wheat varieties can be developed and made available to farmers before stem rust disease becomes a global epidemic.

The Bush administration was initially quick to grasp Ug99’s threat to American wheat production. In 2005, Mike Johanns, then secretary of agriculture, instructed the federal agriculture research service to take the lead in developing an international strategy to deal with stem rust. In 2006, the Agency for International Development mobilized emergency financing to help African and Asian countries accelerate needed wheat research.

But more recently, the administration has begun reversing direction. The State Department is recommending ending American support for the international agricultural research centers that helped start the Green Revolution, including all money for wheat research. And significant financial cuts have been proposed for important research centers, including the Department of Agriculture’s essential rust research laboratory in St. Paul.

This shocking short-sightedness goes against the interests not only of American wheat farmers and consumers but of all humanity. It is tantamount to the United States abandoning its pledge to help halve world hunger by 2015.

If millions of small-scale farmers see their wheat crops wiped out for want of new disease-resistant varieties, the problem will not be confined to any one country. Rust spores move long distances in the jet streams and know no political boundaries. Widespread failures in global wheat production will push the prices of all foods higher, causing new misery for the world’s poor.

Ug99 could reduce world wheat production by 60 million tons. But a global crop failure of this magnitude can be avoided. Before it is too late, America must rebuild, not destroy, the collaborative systems of international agricultural research that were so effective in starting the Green Revolution.

*Norman E. Borlaug, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, is a professor of international agriculture at Texas A&M University.

NYTimes

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