Casaubon's Book

Wheat Stem Rust in the Economist

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.



  1. #1 darwinsdog
    July 13, 2010

    I’ve long contended that biological warfare won’t be directed at humans directly but at our staple cereal grains or legumes, rather. The failure of any given year’s standing crop of rice, wheat, maize or soya, would generate famine on a scale unprecedented in human history. A strategic oomycote pathogen, recombinantly engineered for enhanced virulence & transmissibility, would actually be easier for a terrorist organization to create than would be a nuclear explosive weapon.

    About ten years ago I was discussing this eventuality on a public internet forum when I received a very polite email from someone I had never heard of, informing me that there are people who take this eventuality very, very seriously and that I would be well advised to quit talking about it online. That was a very ominous email at the time but by now, I’m sure that the idea is in free circulation. You can bet the farm that major global players already have such pathogens in their biological weapons arsenals.

  2. #2 Kim Johnston
    July 14, 2010

    Be interested to read your response to Kaufman’s piece in July’s Harpers in which he makes the argument that the price rises of 2008 and ensuing food crisis was not caused by poor yields etc etc but market manipulation – market price gouging if you like.

    He is predicting that unless futures trading on food is outlawed, prices will increase up to 460% within a decade. Which will be truly be a food crisis for the one billion people who cannot access the daily minimum food intake now.
    It will also be a crisis for the urban semi-skilled of the second ranked economies who will be swept back into poverty – making for social volatility on a vast scale.

  3. #3 Sharon Astyk
    July 14, 2010

    I read the Kaufman piece and thought that some of it was very interesting – he’s certainly right that food price speculation was part of the problem. But he looks only at wheat, and he misses some other connections that are also important.


  4. #4 dewey
    July 14, 2010

    darwinsdog – I took a plant pathology course nearly two decades ago in which the professor mentioned efforts by the USSR to develop, IIRC, wheat rust as a bioweapon. He then added (you have to envision the most deliciously sarcastic tone of voice): “We’re working on ‘rice blast’ – guess who *that’s* for.”

  5. #5 darwinsdog
    July 14, 2010

    Hi dewey. Rusts, smuts & water molds are members of the eukaryotic phylum Oomycota, and aren’t fungi. They are more closely related to brown algae than to fungi. In fact, fungi are more closely related to us humans than they are to oomycotes. Nevertheless, they are routinely referred to by agriculturalists as “fungi” and the chemicals used to “control” them are called “fungicides.”

    During full-scale warfare I have little doubt but what Russia &/or the US wouldn’t unleash modified oomycote pathogens against southern Asian rice, just as the Chinese would do against the Russian or American wheat/maize crop. The megadeath this would precipitate would surpass that of a large scale nuclear exchange, which is also to be expected once the consequences of resource depletion & environmental depredation really commence to hit home.

  6. #6 dewey
    July 14, 2010

    Wasn’t me that said they were fungi. I participated in some research on fungal ecology way back in those days, too. Using crop-directed biowarfare makes a certain appalling sense, so long as the people you’re trying to defend yourself from/murder for their resources don’t like any of the same foods that you do…. China, for example, grows maize now, while parts of the U.S. grow rice, so there would be risks of blowback. Such a strategy does have the advantage that it may be hard for the victims to prove an outbreak was deliberately spread or by whom. Probably a good thing that every good Amurrican’s least favorite hairy lunatic was not smart enough to come up with such a scheme. But he probably eats a lot of wheat too.

  7. #7 darwinsdog
    July 14, 2010

    Probably a good thing that every good Amurrican’s least favorite hairy lunatic was not smart enough to come up with such a scheme.

    I was living on Long Island on 9-11-01. It was a life changing event. But suppose the planes had hit the Indian Point nuclear powerplant instead of the WTC. 30 million people live within the fallout radius and would have been irradiated when the reactor containment vessel ruptured, including myself at the time. bin Laden may not have been smart enough, or more likely simply lacked the means, to engineer a recombinant strategic plant pathogen, but he very well could have, and likely gave serious consideration to, hitting that powerplant. He chose a symbolic target instead. I have no intention of defending or rationalizing his heinous actions but it is my belief that he intended a symbolic slap in the face rather than an act intended to maximize casualties. The reactionary response of the Bush regime, perpetuatied by the Obama admin., no doubt has caused him to reconsider. Next time I have little doubt but that he intends to go for the throat.

    Btw, I wonder where he is. The hype is that he’s hiding out in the Tribal regions of Pakistan. He suffered from nephropathy even before 9-11. It’s hard for me to believe that he has access to dialysis technology in such an undeveloped part of the world. Did he receive a kidney transplant, then? Was some captured US soldier or marine the unwilling donor, perhaps? I bet that he’s in Riyadh, the honored guest of the House of Saud, and that the US government under both Bush & Obama knows & accepts this arrangement for the sake of keeping the oil flowing.

  8. #8 Jason
    July 14, 2010


    Your constant paronoid Malthusian eschatological ranting is merely an indication you should probably get some meds. While I agree with Sharon on most of what she writes, you constantly make ridiculous assertions and then use them as evidence for even more ridiculous assertions.

  9. #9 dewey
    July 14, 2010

    Jason – On the assumption that you’re a regular Scienceblogger rather than a troll, let me point out that Sharon’s blog is a little unusual here in that name-calling is not viewed by most regulars as an effective form of argument.

  10. #10 darwinsdog
    July 14, 2010

    ..constant paronoid (sic) Malthusian eschatological ranting..

    Love it! 🙂

  11. #11 Jason
    July 14, 2010

    Not name calling. Seriously think this person requires medical help.

  12. #12 dewey
    July 15, 2010

    And you had such a polite and tactful way of encouraging him to seek it. Troll.

  13. #13 darwinsdog
    July 15, 2010

    You don’t need to defend me against trolls & rude people, dewey.

    The way I see it is that those thoroughly acculturated to a dominant social paradigm feel threatened by dissenting voices and feel the need to attempt to counter or silence said voices for the sake of maintaining the very acculturation that oppresses them. This is a reactionary response motivated by fear. Fear that the dissenting voice may be correct and one’s inculcated worldview faulty.

    In this particular case that fear is no doubt justified. If I am right about impending human population collapse then Jason is perfectly justified in being as terrified as he seems to be. The only unfortunate thing is that Jason seems incapable of countering the dissenting voice that frightens him with facts and reasoned argument. He seems only capable of advocating medication to silence the dissenting voice he feels threatened by.

    If sanity is determined by consensus then dissenting voices such as mine are indeed insane and in need of medical treatment. This was one approach to silencing dissent in the USSR and other totalitarian regimes, after all. I would contend, on the contrary, that if a dominant social paradigm is insane, then adoption of it or conformity to it is likewise insane. See Joseph’s posts about the inherent insanity of the contemporary dominant social paradigm.

  14. #14 dewey
    July 15, 2010

    Yeah, I know. I am just extra irritated by the Scienceblog troll contingent because for 24 hours I thought we were going to migrate back to the old blog and get rid of them (sorry, Sharon!).

    You and I disagree completely on the near-term extinction issue but at least we both cite facts and theories from the biological sciences (and for me history) to support our relative cases rather than namecalling. That’s how I decide whether someone I’m arguing with is really thinking about something, or just acting as a parrot [no offense to avian-americans intended] for views he’s been spoonfed.

  15. #15 Jason
    July 15, 2010

    I’m sorry, I tend to lurk and don’t frequently comment, but I read this blog and its comments daily. I have learned a lot and agree with much is written. But just as I am frustrated when mainstream media writes glowingly optimistic pablum without being called out, I am surprised when darwinsdog constantly goes off on another unscientific-based rant without being called out.

    The first darwinsdog post on this thread refers to an email implied to be from some super-secret spy organization. Paranoia.

    The second refers to speculation about bioweapons that super-evil governments are planning to unleash in the (inhis mind) inevitable coming war over resources. Backed by science. Yeah. Or paranoia.

    The next is some seriously nutty speculation about bin Laden.

    Science based? Yeah, no. And yes I was somewhat glib in my initial response but I have learned that little good comes from arguing with crazy, you point it out and move on. I felt someone ought to. Back to lurking…

  16. #16 dewey
    July 15, 2010

    You don’t think our government and several others have bioweapons programs? Think again. That’s not what is often wrongly termed a “conspiracy theory”; it’s a well-known fact for which you should be able to find confirmation relatively easily.

  17. #17 darwinsdog
    July 15, 2010

    The first darwinsdog post on this thread refers to an email implied to be from some super-secret spy organization. Paranoia.

    Although that email was signed, I have no idea who the person who wrote it was. I never stated it was “from some super-secret spy organization.” It could well have been from some concerned private citizen for all I know. If you’re imputing the message’s origin to some spy organization, Jason, the paranoia is your’s, not mine. And good on you for learning to spell “paranoia” correctly.

    The second refers to speculation about bioweapons that super-evil governments are planning to unleash in the (inhis mind) inevitable coming war over resources. Backed by science. Yeah. Or paranoia.

    If you are of the opinion that major global powers don’t possess biological weapons arsenals you seriously need to have your opinions better informed.

    The next is some seriously nutty speculation about bin Laden.

    I was merely speculating on his whereabouts, since no one seems to be able to find him. Where do you think he’s at? His nephropathy has been covered by the news media. He’s still alive, as he periodically releases audio or video messages that refer to current events. So he has to be somewhere. Given the known fact of his chronic kidney disease, what’s so “nutty” about the speculation that he’s either hiding out someplace where dialysis technology is available or that he’s received a transplant?

    Jason, “paranoia” implies being afraid of something. The main thing people are afraid of is dying. I’m not afraid of dying, per se, although pain & morbidity scares me, as is only rational. The paranoia I see at work here is on your part. My interpretation of your behavior is that you’re scared to death that I may be correct in my forecast of impending human population collapse to or near to extinction. Scared to the point of paranoia, in fact. If this isn’t the case, present some evidence firmly grounded in population biology to refute my contention. Ad hominem pissiness or technocopian idealism alone won’t do.

  18. #18 Alan from near BC
    July 16, 2010

    Re: bio-weapons and the like:

    Plum Island

    That should be sufficient. I understand that Utah would like a bio-facility, and that Kansas is high on the list for one. I, for one, think Kansas is a great location , but on the other hand, Utah would be good too. (That was sarcasm)

New comments have been disabled.