Protecting Wheat Harvests from Destruction

Experts from 26 Countries Meet at IAEA on Global Plan Against "Stem Rust"

The IAEA is working with countries to help identify wheat varieties that are resistant to diseases that can destroy harvests. (Photo: P. Pavlicek/IAEA)

Scientists are accelerating research into new varieties of wheat to identify those resistant to an aggressive fungus that is destroying harvests in African and Middle Eastern countries. An FAO/IAEA technical meeting in early May is bringing together experts from 26 countries on a global plan against the disease, known as "stem rust", or Ug99.

Wheat provides 20% of the world´s calories, and Ug99 is capable of cutting wheat yields by 20 to 80 percent, with isolated incidents of 100 percent destruction.

Fungicides, the current method used to prevent Ug99, is expensive and environmentally suspect.

"The IAEA realises that it must act before this becomes an even bigger emergency," says Pierre Lagoda, who heads the Plant Breeding and Genetics Section of the FAO/IAEA Joint Programme. To address the threat, experts from 26 countries met this week in Vienna, Austria, to join international efforts, focusing on applications of nuclear techniques in agriculture. Cooperative global efforts have intensified following the wake-up call of Nobel Laureate Dr. Norman Borlaug, who has warned that "Ug99 is the most serious threat to wheat and barley in 50 years."

About 90% of commercial high-yielding wheat is vulnerable to Ug99. So scientists are working to select new wheat varieties that are impervious to the fungus.

The meeting, Responding to the Transboundary Threat of Wheat Black Stem Rust (Ug99), 4 � 8 May, is launching a programme to determine if any of the existing mutant wheat varieties that are bred in laboratories worldwide are resistant to Ug99.

The 26 experts are from countries that are either affected, threatened, or - as in the case of the USA and Australia - are supporting research into Ug99-resistant wheat.

Sweeping Across the World

Wheat stem rust (Ug99), which was first identified in Uganda in 1999, is a new variety of an old crop disease called "stem rust". It is particularly alarming because it can infect crops in just a few hours and vast clouds of invisible spores can be carried by the wind for hundreds of miles.

Since 1999, Ug99 has spread alarmingly into the wheat producing countries of North Africa and the Middle East, mutating quickly to break down the defenses of each new wheat variety it encounters. In 2001 Ug99 was identified in Kenya, 2003 in Ethiopia, 2007 in Yemen, and in 2008 it had spread to Iran.

Experts project that the "bread basket" of Europe (Kazakhstan and Ukraine) and later India and China will be next on its hit-list.

Last update: 11 November 2014