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Tuesday, April 15, 2008


ug99 and food riots

i sincerely hope this is the last time i mention this, because if it is it means that a lot of fears failed to materialize.

new scientist a year ago ran this article about a fungal strain puccinia graminis tritici (or stem rust) which attacks wheat, called TTKS or race ug99.

Since the Green Revolution, farmers everywhere have grown wheat varieties that resist stem rust, but Ug99 has evolved to take advantage of those varieties, and almost no wheat crops anywhere are resistant to it.

The strain has spread slowly across east Africa, but in January this year spores blew across to Yemen, and north into Sudan (see Map). Scientists who have tracked similar airborne spores in this part of the world say it will now blow into Egypt, Turkey and the Middle East, and on to India, lands where a billion people depend on wheat.

There is hope: this week scientists are assessing the first Ug99-resistant varieties of wheat that might be used for crops. However, it will take another five to eight years to breed up enough seed to plant all our wheat fields.

The threat couldn't have come at a worse time. Consumption has outstripped production in six of the last seven years, and stocks are at their lowest since 1972. Wheat prices jumped 14 per cent last year.

Black stem rust itself is nothing new. It has been a major blight on wheat production since the rise of agriculture, and the Romans even prayed to a stem rust god, Robigus. It can reduce a field of ripening grain to a dead, tangled mass, and vast outbreaks regularly used to rip through wheat regions. The last to hit the North American breadbasket, in 1954, wiped out 40 per cent of the crop. In the cold war both the US and the Soviet Union stockpiled stem rust spores as a biological weapon.

After the 1954 epidemic, [Norman] Borlaug began work in Mexico on developing wheat that resisted stem rust. The project grew into the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, known by its Spanish acronym CIMMYT. The rust-resistant, high-yielding wheat it developed banished chronic hunger in much of the world, ended stem rust outbreaks, and won Borlaug the Nobel peace prize in 1970.

Yet once again Borlaug - now 93 and fighting cancer - is leading the charge against his old enemy. When Ug99 turned up in Kenya in 2002, he sounded the alarm. "Too many years had gone by and no one was taking Ug99 seriously," he says. He blames complacency, and the dismantling of training and wheat testing programmes, after 40 years without outbreaks.

... fears grow in rich wheat-growing countries, but meanwhile Ug99 has got worse. It was first noticed because it started appearing on wheat previously protected by a gene complex called Sr31, the backbone of stem rust resistance in most wheat farmed worldwide. Then last year it acquired the ability to defeat another widely used complex, Sr24. "Of the 50 genes we know for resistance to stem rust, only 10 work even partially against Ug99," says Ward. Those are present in less than 1 per cent of the crop.

The first line of defence is fungicide, but the poor farmers who stand to lose most from the blight generally cannot afford it, or don't have the equipment or know-how to apply it. CIMMYT is considering "fire brigade" spray teams armed with cheap, generic fungicides in poor areas. However, they will be competing with the rich for fungicide, and depending on where Ug99 strikes, stocks could be limited.

Even rich countries face problems. The US has been fighting soybean rust with fungicide ever since spores blew in on hurricane Ivan in 2004. If Ug99 arrives as well, the US could be in trouble because it doesn't make enough fungicide for both crops. Kitty Cardwell of the US Department of Agriculture says there might be enough if the US fights Ug99 the same way as it is tackling soya rust: spotting outbreaks with a fast DNA-based field test and posting the results on an interactive website (, so farmers spray only when danger looms. Ultimately, says Ward, the only real answer "is to get new, resistant varieties out there".

So it's a race, and who wins depends on what Ug99 does now. Stem rust can arrive in a new area and lurk for years before it gets the right conditions for an outbreak. "It won't suddenly explode everywhere. It will be like a moving storm," says Dowswell.

However, Ug99 has another ace up its sleeve. The spores blowing in the wind now are from the asexual stage that grows on wheat. If any blow onto the leaves of its other host, the barberry bush (Berberis vulgaris), they will change into the sexual form and swap genes with whatever other stem rusts they find. Barberry is native to west Asia. "As if it wasn't challenging enough breeding varieties that resist this thing," laments Ward. "All I know is that what blows into Iran will not be the same as what blows out."

now this from the united nations a month ago.

A dangerous new fungus with the ability to destroy entire wheat fields has been detected in Iran, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported today.

The wheat stem rust, whose spores are carried by wind across continents, was previously found in East Africa and Yemen and has moved to Iran, which said that laboratory tests have confirmed its presence in some localities in Broujerd and Hamedan in the country’s west.

Up to 80 per cent of all Asian and African wheat varieties are susceptible to the fungus, and major wheat-producing nations to Iran’s east – such as Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – should be on high alert, FAO warned.

“The fungus is spreading rapidly and could seriously lower wheat production in countries at direct risk,” said Shivaji Pandey, Director of FAO’s Plant Production and Protection Division.

massively rising food prices -- a side effect of both the western world's dollar-liquidity binge transmitted as inflation through currency pegs to much of the third world, and demand increases for the oil which is processed into fertilizer even as supply cannot rise correspondingly -- are already triggering food riots across the globe -- what may represent one of the greatest threats to third world stability in decades. there is no motive for violence quite as compelling as hunger.

"This is the world's big story," said Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University's Earth Institute.

"The finance ministers were in shock, almost in panic this weekend," he said on CNN's "American Morning," in a reference to top economic officials who gathered in Washington. "There are riots all over the world in the poor countries ... and, of course, our own poor are feeling it in the United States."

World Bank President Robert Zoellick has said the surging costs could mean "seven lost years" in the fight against worldwide poverty.

"While many are worrying about filling their gas tanks, many others around the world are struggling to fill their stomachs, and it is getting more and more difficult every day," Zoellick said late last week in a speech opening meetings with finance ministers.

if these largely-demand-driven pressures were to receive a supply shock in the form of a wheat epidemic, what would follow is unthinkable.

but there's a different dynamic to consider as well. "commodities as an asset class" has become a mantra in recent years, and there can be little doubt htat huge amounts of speculative capital have poured into commodities. to some extent, this must have the effect of "artificially" raising prices. more than one oil industry observer in the last few years, for example, has been made a fool of by rising prices which have seemed to levitate over normal supply-demand modeling.

as noted in comments at calculated risk, this is not without precedent.

What were the economic diseases from which business was suffering? A few of them may be listed categorically.

... 2. Artificial commodity prices. During 1929, as David Friday has pointed out, the prices of many products had been stabilized at high levels by pools. There were pools, for example, in copper and cotton; there was a wheat pool in Canada, a coffee pool in Brazil, a sugar pool in Cuba, a wool pool in Australia. The prices artificially maintained by these pools had led to overproduction, which became the more dangerous the longer it remained concealed. Stocks of these commodities accumulated at a rate out of all proportion to consumption; eventually the pools could no longer support the markets, and when the inevitable day of reckoning came, prices fell disastrously.

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Since destabilization is always a prelude to war and the US has been saber rattling about Iran for several years, and developing bioweapons for decades, I hope the phrase "detected in Iran" indicates nothing more than a new mutation in the long coevolution of disease and crops in the area.

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