Virulent fungal wheat virus – sifting fact from fiction, an update.

Yesterday there seemed to be much interest in the virulent wheat rust virus UG99 and so I thought is was time to update the situation and correct some misinformation that has been reported. It seems this topic was discussed by Glenn Beck on his show yesterday, but he unfortunately was unaware of some factual errors. The wheat virus known as Puccinia graminis or UG99 was first detected in Uganda in 1999 not Ghana, and subsequently spread to Kenya and Ethiopia. Yesterday Glenn Beck said:

“This disease started, I think in Ghana. Then it went all through Africa. It’s moved by the wind. It’s a spore and it moves by the wind. Then it wiped out all the wheat fields and now it’s jumped over to India. This is why there’s such a shortage of wheat overseas.”

In fact it has not “jumped over to India”. It is moved by the wind but the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United nations (FOA) has reported that the virus

“found in East Africa and Yemen, has moved to major wheat growing areas in Iran” and also in an earlier article that “a recent FAO mission in the field has confirmed for the first time that Ug99 has affected wheat fields in Yemen. It appears that the Ug99 strain found in Yemen is already more virulent than the one found in East Africa. Samples of the pathogen were sent to the United States and Canada for further analysis. There is a high risk that the disease could also spread to Sudan”.

In 2007 it reported this on the potential danger of spread based on previous experience:

“In the late 1980s, a virulent strain of yellow rust, a wheat disease similar to stem rust, emerged in East Africa and crossed the Red Sea into Yemen. It then moved into the Near East and Central Asia, reaching wheat fields of South Asia within four years. Major yellow rust epidemics were recorded with wheat losses of more than one billion US dollars. Based on monitoring of Desert Locust pathways, FAO does not exclude that wind currents could carry Ug99 stem rust spores from Yemen northwards along the Red Sea to Egypt or through the Saudi Arabian Peninsula towards countries in the Near East”.

To date it has not spread beyond Iran and certainly not reached India yet and there is a concerted effort by the FAO, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), which are leading the Global Rust Initiative (GRI), an international consortium to fight the spread of rust fungus diseases around the world. Canada, the United States and India are the main donors to the GRI.

In the interests of factual information it must be said that this virus has the potential to cause global crop epidemics and wheat harvest losses that could lead to increased wheat prices and local or regional food shortages. However, so far the countries affected have been working towards controlling the problem through planting rust resistant species of wheat and restricting planting dates to break the disease cycle.

The FAO says that with ICARDA and CIMMYT it will support countries in developing resistant varieties, producing their clean quality seeds, upgrading national plant protection and plant breeding services and developing contingency plans

I hope that this allays the fears of readers and informs them of the current status of the spread. For those wishing to read more I include the following links to articles about the virus at the FAO site which has a picture of rust virus affected plants and more information:

1. Wheat killer detected in Iran. 3.5.2008

2. Wheat killer spreads from east Africa to Yemen. 4.12.2007


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~ by abstraktbiblos on Wednesday, 23 April, 2008.

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