Longtime readers of ye olde blogge will remember that we talked a lot about wheat stem rust and other wheat diseases in the last few years, since Ug99 began to devastate Kenyan wheat production, and then again as it appeared in Yemen and Iran, but I don’t think I’ve posted anything about the track of wheat stem rust since I moved over to Science Blogs. But the Economist has a good introductory article on the issue this month that is worth reading for those of you who haven’t been following this.
The new variant is called Ug99: Ug for its country of origin; 99 for the year it was confirmed. It soon spread to Kenya and Ethiopia. In 2006 it made a leap over the Red Sea into Yemen, where it appeared in a more deadly form. In 2007 it showed up in Iran, apparently blown from Yemen. In June scientists announced they had found four new mutations of rust (making seven in all) and Mr Pretorius confirmed its presence in a harmful form in South Africa.
This could mark a final stage before disaster strikes. Rust’s appearance in South Africa means the disease has pushed deep into the southern hemisphere for the first time. Mr Pretorius worries that westerly winds might blow spores as far as Australia, which is one of the world’s top five wheat exporters. Iran borders Pakistan, which is among the top ten wheat producers and where roughly 100m people depend on the cereal to survive. David Hodson of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Wheat Rust Disease Global Programme thinks it is only a matter of time before Ug99 appears in Pakistan.
The really critical point, to me is that we’ve been in a food crisis worldwide for several years, in years with record harvests, no major crop failures, no unusual crop disease outbreaks and no other strains on the food supply other than purely economic and energy ones (the sort we are likely to see frequently.) Add in a major crop disease outbreak or something else that reduces the record harvests we’ve been seeing, and we’re facing disaster. More disaster.