Wheat rust and world farming: Possible impact in the bread basket of India-Punjab?

by Dave

IT IS sometimes called the “polio of agriculture”: a terrifying but almost forgotten disease. Wheat rust is not just back after a 50-year absence, but spreading in new and scary forms. In some ways it is worse than child-crippling polio, still lingering in parts of Nigeria. Wheat rust has spread silently and speedily by 5,000 miles in a decade. It is now camped at the gates of one of the world’s breadbaskets, Punjab. In June scientists announced the discovery of two new strains in South Africa, the most important food producer yet infected.

Wheat rust is a fungal infection. Its most devastating form (Puccinia graminis) attacks the plant’s stem, forming lethal, scaly red pustules. It has plagued crops for centuries. The Romans deified it, and believed that sacrificing dogs warded it off. It was the worst wheat disease of the first half of the 20th century, killing about a fifth of America’s harvest in periodic epidemics.

Wheat rust once spurred the Green Revolution, the huge increase in crop yields that started in the 1940s. Now it could threaten those great gains. Norman Borlaug, the great American agronomist who died last year, conducted his original research into wheat rust.

A full-blown epidemic in a big wheat-growing area could therefore be catastrophic. Only a handful of wheat varieties have any resistance to Ug99, implying that harvests could fail even more completely than during earlier epidemics. Such a failure would be felt on a vast scale. Wheat is the world’s most widely planted crop and accounts for a fifth of humanity’s calorie intake (rice has a similar share; all other foods combined account for the rest).

via economist.com

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