Scientists are concerned that a stem rust fungus called Ug99 could wipe out more than 80% of the world’s wheat. The disease–which also threatens barley– has already jumped the Red Sea, infected crops in Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula, and is perfectly positioned to move on to Egypt, the Middle East, and Asia. Experts speculate that if Ug99 isn’t spread by travelers, the fungus will be carried naturally by the wind into the breadbaskets of Northern India and Pakistan, and then into Russia, China, and North America.
Ug99 is aggressive. Government scientists working from a bio-secure greenhouse at the Cereal Disease Laboratory in Saint Paul, Minnesota, suspended fungal spores from Kenya in a light mineral oil and sprayed them onto thousands of healthy wheat plants to study its effects. After two weeks, the stalks were covered with the deadly reddish blisters characteristic of the disease.
The results of this test were alarming. Nearly all of the plants died, indicating that statistically, the fungus has the potential of wiping out more than 80% of the world’s wheat crops.
The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico estimates that 19% of the world’s wheat is in imminent danger. This is a sombering fact when you consider that 19% of the wheat provides food for one billion people in Africa and Asia.
American wheat farmers estimate that the fungus would destroy $10 billion in wheat crops if it reached the United States.
“It’s a time bomb,” says Oregon State University’s Jim Peterson, Professor of Wheat Breeding and Genetics in Corvallis. “It moves in the air, and it can move by clothing on an airplane. We know it’s going to be here. It’s just a matter of how long it’s going to take.”
A Modest Proposal
The “Solution” to this problem isn’t surprising. Scientists are trying to develop stronger wheat varieties through the implementation of genes that have an immunity to Ug99.
Genetically modified wheat?
This is an interesting problem itself.
What impact will this have on human health? What will the Middle East do with countries like Egypt who are stepping up to the plate to ban genetically-modified crops entirely?
It appears that Ug99 could become as protaganistic to humans as it is to plants.
“A significant humanitarian crisis is inevitable,” says Rick Ward, Coordinator of the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project at New York’s Cornell University.
The Race Is On
Scientists have been working for several years to identify a half-dozen genes that could help protect wheat from Ug99, and will begin breeding them into crops as soon as possible. Since conventional breeding techniques take nine to twelve years to implement, the consensus is, the sooner the better.
Not everyone agrees, however. Health advocacy groups are voicing concerns over the fact that no studies 0r tests are scheduled to see how these genetic modifications will affect human health. Environmentalists question if modifications will do more harm than good, arguing that genetic tampering is responsible for the development of the apocalyptic strain we’re seeing now.
“We already have genetically-modified corn and potatoes,” said a researcher who wishes to remain anonymous, “So what difference does it make? You don’t see people dying from it. Food is food. It’s better than famine! They should stop throwing rocks at the scientists helping sustain our food supply. Ask a third world country if they care about genetic modification.”
A Foe of Biblical Proportions
Stem rust isn’t a new problem; farmers have been battling it since ancient times. “Historically, it infected wild grasses,” says Jorge Dubcovskky, Professor of Genetics and Plant Breeding at UC Davis, “and later made the jump to cultivated crops.”
“The pathogen just kept mutating and evolving,” he said. “It was one of our Biblical pests–not a small enemy.”
Ug99’s ability to mutate makes it sinister. When wheat plants try to mount a defense against the fungus by recognizing a chemical that stem rust emits, the fungus mutates to evade the plant’s immune system. This makes it nearly impossible to stop.
According to Professor Peterson, who is also the Chairman of the National Wheat Improvement Committee, between 1917 and 1935, stem rust destroyed more than 20% of U.S. wheat crops. In the 1950’s, nearly 9% of wheat crops were lost. And in 1962, nearly 5.2% of wheat crops were affected.
Breeders fought Ug99 for many years by introducing six major stem-rust resistant genes into wheat, thinking it would be enough to keep their wheat safe. After a few stem-rust free decades, they were sure they had outsmarted Ug99. Scientists studied other things, and stopped working on new resistant genes.
Marly Carson, research leader at The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Cereal Disease Laboratory, said “It didn’t draw a lot of attention, frankly.”
Then it happened: In 1999, a new strain of the fungus was found on a wheat farm in Uganda where intense solar radiation helped the fungus mutate. Interestingly, it was also found reproducing on highland barberry bushes adjacent to the wheat crops. Scientists call it The Perfect Storm; Genetic shuffling between the plants created the “super fungus” we battle today.
Before long, neighboring Kenya was infected with Ug99, as well as Ethiopia, Sudan, and Yemen, becoming more virulant as it spread. By 2006, scientists found a variant that could overcome the genes protecting the Great Plains Wheat, and last year, a mutation that could infect Eastern Wheat.
- The timing couldn’t have been worse, occurring at a low point in world wheat supplies.
- The Middle East and Asia’s 160 million acres of fields, which account for a quarter of the world’s annual wheat harvest, are in the direct line of the disease’s path.
- The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, based in El Batan, Mexico, and the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, located in Aleppo, Syria, are leading the fight against Ug99.
- As stated earlier in the article, scientists are attempting to breed new wheat varieties that can stand up to Ug99. The United States alone will need hundreds of new varieties generated if Ug99 is found here.
“You can’t just breed it into one or two major varieties and expect to solve the problem,” says Peterson. “You have to reinvent this wheel at a local level.”
Until that happens, farmers are praying for the best.
Author’s Note: Typically, I don’t like to publish doomsday figures because (1) Prayer changes things, (2) The Bible tells us to think about whatever is lovely and of good report, and (3) I don’t want to condone “Chicken Little” reporting everytime fear presents itself.
That being said, I am publishing this report because it addresses two Bible plants (wheat and barley), Semitic countries (The Middle East), and Bible Prophecy:
“And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, ‘A measure of wheat for a penny and three measures of barley for a penny; and see you don’t hurt the oil and the wine.” Revelation 6:6
In Biblical days, a penny (denarius) was a common wage for a day’s work, and a quart of wheat or three quarts of barley were basically subsistence diets. In Revelation 6:6, John is indicating that a man will have to work all day just to get enough food to eat, with nothing left over for his family or the elderly. (See the parable of the vineyard, Matthew 20:2). A Biblical “measure” is a very small amount. Since Barley is a third of the cost, a meal of barley for three could cost a whole day’s wages.