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A new wheat rust strain is killing up to 40 percent of farm fields in several bread-basket regions, including North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Scientists say the plant disease, which has been obsolete for decades, has now mutated into more aggressive fungicide-resistant forms.
“Yellow or stripe rust has been in the [Middle East] region for many years but was contained by using certain resistant crops,” Voice of America reported. “Last year, however, a new, virulent strain emerged.”
“The potential wheat rust epidemic illustrates the fragility of today’s food security situation for many countries,” Hans Braun, the director of the wheat project at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center said during a conference sponsored by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). “Crop diseases are emerging more frequently and spreading much faster.”
According to an ICARDA statement, “In most of the countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia and the Caucuses, where wheat can contribute more than 40% of people’s food calories and 20% of the protein, the epidemics cause economic hardship for farmers and their families.”
The wheat rust outbreak is particularly risky for arid regions.
“In some countries grain production is now falling as aquifers—underground water-bearing rocks—are depleted,” The Guardian reported. “After the Arab oil-export embargo of the 1970s, the Saudis realised that since they were heavily dependent on imported grain, they were vulnerable to a grain counter-embargo. Using oil-drilling technology, they tapped into an aquifer far below the desert to produce irrigated wheat.
“In a matter of years, Saudi Arabia was self-sufficient in its principal food staple…Between 2007 and 2010, the harvest of nearly 3m tonnes dropped by more than two-thirds. At this rate the Saudis could harvest their last wheat crop in 2012 and then be totally dependent on imported grain to feed their population of nearly 30 million” (ibid.).
The growing epidemic is also feared in the United States and Canada.
“The last major outbreak of wheat stem rust in the United States was in the 1950s, when it destroyed 40% of the spring wheat crop,” USA Today reported.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, “Throughout recorded history fungal rust diseases have been a recurring threat to wheat crops worldwide. Three rust diseases—stem (black), stripe (yellow) and leaf (brown) rust—are the most economically damaging diseases affecting wheat production.”