There is, however, one big problem looming ahead in the world food industry. Unless the scientists get very lucky very soon, we shall soon all be hearing a lot more about something called Ug99. This is the name of a variant of the stem rust fungus, Puccinia graminis, that attacks wheat.
It was first identified in Uganda in 1999, hence the name. But this year it spread dramatically, its spores drifting on the wind across the Red Sea to Yemen and across the Persian Gulf to Iran.
The wheat stem rust, also known as wheat black rust, is capable of causing severe losses. It can destroy entire wheat fields. The FAO estimates that as much as 80 percent of all wheat varieties planted in Asia and Africa are susceptible to this new strain.
“Global wheat yields could be at risk if the stem rust spreads to major wheat-producing countries,” warns FAO Director-General Dr Jacques Diouf. “The fungus can spread rapidly and has the potential to cause global crop epidemics and wheat harvest losses of several billion dollars. This could lead to increased wheat prices and local or regional food shortages. Developing countries that are relying on wheat and do not have access to resistant varieties will be particularly hit.”
There are two big problems here. The first is that Ug99 has defeated the two main gene complexes, Sr 31 and Sr 24, that protect most wheat strains from stem rust. It appears to resist most fungicides. Stopping it may not be a foregone conclusion.
“Of the 50 genes we know for resistance to stem rust, only 10 work even partially against Ug99,” warns Rock Ward, leading the fight against it at the international Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.
The second problem is the nightmare scenario. Having jumped the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, it is not clear how Ug99 gets stopped before it heads east into Pakistan and India, and north into Russia, Ukraine and Europe.
“This thing has immense potential for social and human destruction," says Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, now 93 and known as the father of the Green Revolution in agriculture. "We know what to do and how to do it. All we need are the financial resources, scientific cooperation and political will to contain this threat to world food security.”
The article goes on to say that the American midwest is the likely savior of the world, in terms of what could be grown to feed people. I would tend to agree--so long as we abandon to boondoggle of ethanol and start fixing our own farm policies. I grew up with these massive fields of corn and soybeans and I know what could be done if we stopped tying the hands of the American farmer behind him and her. If we could tap into this resource and start using it to stabilize the world, we'd be better off. And, yes, I know that we should limit fertilizer and runoff, and that modern farming beats the hell out of the environment.
Anyway, the Washington Independent does a great job--follow the link and check them out. They're not paying me to say that.