East Africa wheat fungus poses global threat — report

A resilient new strain of wheat fungus from East Africa is threatening to spread to the Middle East, Asia and the Americas and cause crop damage, scientists said on Thursday.

Researchers said the new Ug99 form of stem rust could be spread by the wind and attacked many varieties of wheat that were resistant fungus. It could easily spread from Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia, which are currently affected.

“Recognising the potential this disease has, there is almost no one exempt,” said Ronnie Coffman, head of Cornell University’s Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics.

Coffman led scientists who conducted research into Ug99 and released a report on Thursday on how to fight its spread.
“We have to stop the disease from spreading to other parts of the world.

Otherwise we are going to see a catastrophe,” said Masa Iwanaga, director general of Mexico’s International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre.

The scientists said they feared an epidemic similar to those that caused major grain losses in North America in 1903, 1905 and 1950-54 and famine in Asia.

All those occurred before the cultivation of wheat varieties that were immune to stem rust, the report said. Discovered in Uganda in 1999, the new strain could also be spread by travellers.

A previous strain identified in Ethiopia in 1986 arrived in Egypt five years later and prevailing wind patterns made it likely the new strain would travel similarly, the scientists said.

The report said there was still time to isolate wheat varieties resistant to Ug99 and distribute them to farmers with susceptible crops, especially in north Africa and Asia.

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