Ronnie Coffman, right, with project collaborator Germa Bedada
Top wheat experts reported a breakthrough in their ability to track strains of a deadly, rapidly mutating wheat pathogen called stem rust that threatens wheat fields from East Africa to South Asia.
Using data submitted by farmers and scientists, creators of Rust-Tracker, a global cereal rust monitoring system, say they can monitor 42 million hectares of wheat in 27 developing countries in the path of a wind-borne disease so virulent it could quickly turn a healthy field of wheat into a black mass of twisted stems and dried-up grains.
At a symposium in Beijing organized by the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) Sept. 1-4, scientists reported significant progress developing and introducing 20 new varieties of rust-resistant wheat…Studies presented in Beijing reported on progress with isolating genes that confer resistance to the Ug99 fungus in a wild relative of wheat from Israel and Lebanon. An estimated 85 percent of wheat in production, including most wheat grown in the Americas, Asia and Africa, is susceptible to Ug99 and its variants…
In using Rust-Tracker specialists use smartphones and tablets to collect and submit field data that generates “risk maps.” Researchers use the maps to determine the path of virulent strains of stem rust, assess the severity of the threat and prepare farmers to resist it.
“The only manageable solution for farmers who cannot afford fungicides when rust hits is to replace their crop with new rust-resistant varieties,” Ronnie Coffman said. “Planting only 5 percent of a nation’s wheat fields with seed from resistant varieties would allow replacement of susceptible varieties within a year, if Ug99 should appear.
“It’s frustrating,” Coffman continued. “We have the technology to prevent a tragedy that could destroy crops in one of the world’s most important wheat-producing regions. But the funding is not in place to get enough rust-resistant wheat seed multiplied fast enough and into the hands of the people who need it….”
Because China is the largest wheat producer and consumer in the world, threats to its wheat crop or any significant decline in production could have an impact on food security, according to Coffman, who is also director of international programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Wheat is the third leading grain crop in China after rice and maize, with 24 million hectares under cultivation. Yearly production stands at 115 million tons, which is 17 percent of the world’s production.
Though I have to wonder to what extent alternative methods of planting and cropping might aid resistance?