No, not those hideous boots! The Ug99 black stem rust fungus, a strain of Puccinia graminis. It doesn’t kill people directly, but it could wipe out much of the world’s wheat crop. As always, the developing world will probably be hit the hardest. And it’s a potential failure of surveillance.
First, what the Ug99 fungus is:
The disease is Ug99, a virulent strain of black stem rust fungus (Puccinia graminis), discovered in Uganda in 1999. Since the Green Revolution, farmers everywhere have grown wheat varieties that resist stem rust, but Ug99 has evolved to take advantage of those varieties, and almost no wheat crops anywhere are resistant to it.
The strain has spread slowly across east Africa, but in January this year spores blew across to Yemen, and north into Sudan (see Map). Scientists who have tracked similar airborne spores in this part of the world say it will now blow into Egypt, Turkey and the Middle East, and on to India, lands where a billion people depend on wheat.
There are recently developed–one might even say evolved–Ug99 resistant wheats, but it will take five to eight years to breed enough seed to combat the fungus. What is frustrating is that there has been a complete dissolution of the infrastructure to combat wheat rust fungus (italics mine):
When Ug99 turned up in Kenya in 2002, he sounded the alarm. “Too many years had gone by and no one was taking Ug99 seriously,” he says. He blames complacency, and the dismantling of training and wheat testing programmes, after 40 years without outbreaks.
Now a Global Rust Initiative (GRI) is under way at CIMMYT [the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center]. It’s head, Rick Ward, blames the delay on cuts, starting in the 1980s, in CIMMYT’s funding for routine monitoring and maintenance of crops and pests.
“CIMMYT was slow to detect the extent of susceptibility to Ug99 [because] it didn’t have the scientific eyes and ears on the ground any more,” says Chris Dowswell of CIMMYT. “Once it did, it had to start a laborious fund-raising campaign to respond.”
But not too worry: the Nobel laureate leading the effort is only 93 years old…