By David L. Brown
The wheat fungus known as Ug99 continues to threaten the world’s “Staff of Life” and could destroy up to four-fifths of the world’s wheat crop, according to this article on the Ottawa Citizen online site. The effects are already being felt in shortages and higher prices for bread, pasta and dumplings on which about a third of the world’s people rely as a major source of nutrition.
The fungus, known as Ug99 for having been first observed in Uganda ten years ago, has “so far proved unstoppable,” the article says, quoting Canadian officials. According to the Citizen story:
The fungus is now threatening areas that account for more than one-third of the world’s wheat production, and scientists in North America say it’s only a matter of time before the pest hits the breadbasket regions of North America, Russia and China.
I first reported on this nearly three years ago (“A Looming Threat to World Food Supply?,” August 31, 2006, link here), and followed up on March 19, 2008 with a second essay (“Ugly Times Ahead as Death Spores Spread,” link here.) That second essay was accompanied by a map showing how Ug99 had spread more rapidly than expected, from out of Africa to the Mideast and threatening the southern Asia wheat growing region.
Folks, this is a truly serious threat to human existence. Literally hundreds of millions and perhaps a billion or more lives may be at stake if the world’s wheat crop suffers widespread destruction. As the article in the Ottawa paper shows, the effects of the plant disease are already being felt and are poised to reach new heights.
To see how serious this is, here is a Google Maps representation of the paths Ug99 has taken out of Africa. It now has Pakistan, India and China in its sights.
Oddly, I have seen little news coverage about this devastating disease, one that potentially could rival the Black Death and Spanish Flu in its impact upon human life. In fact, considering today’s far larger world population the number of deaths that might result could be far beyond anything in history.
We need to pay serious attention to this developing disaster. According to Rob Graf, an Alberta plant scientist quoted in the Citizen article: “I think it’s important people start recognizing what a big threat this is. This could mean world famine. This is quite the deal.”
Yes, it is “quite the deal” indeed. As I wrote in 2008:
Let’s be clear on this: Ug99 doesn’t just represent an inconvenient disease that might reduce yields somewhat. It is a fungus that totally destroys wheat wherever it appears, as surely as a wildfire or plague of locusts. And not only that, it seems that many varieties of barley and oats are also susceptible to being destroyed by Ug99. And as I reported in 2006, plant scientists warn that at least two other similar plant diseases called stripe rust and leaf rust “also loom large” as threats to the world’s grain supply.
This could be the biggest “story” of the 21st Century, a period that future historians may describe as a time of unprecedented famine. And yet… How much do we see in the press or on network TV about this developing disaster, something that should be one of the biggest stories of our time? How many of our “leaders” are scrambling to help prepare against the threat? Well, basically the answers to those questions are “little” and “none”. Today, for example, the world press is falling all over itself to report on the death of a notorious pop singer. Yesterday it was the infidelity of a pathetic state governor. These are events of little import that shall soon be forgotten, like pimples on elephants when set against the potential for widespread famine. Even the recent swine flu kerfluffle fades to insignificance beside the ongoing spread of Ug99.
I can imagine news executives and politicians saying, “Nobody wants to hear about famine.” But it’s coming, and not just because of Ug99. There are other factors at work to reduce the world’s supply of food, most of them related to Peak Oil and the population explosion. All of modern industrial agriculture was built on a foundation of cheap and plentiful energy, and as production costs rise in line with energy prices and declining resources, food will become more expensive, more scarce, and less available to the poorest humans. That’s a recipe for disaster even without the added complication of Ug99.
So, it’s back to our regular programming, the mind-numbing pabulum being served up to keep the people of the world from falling into panic. Just keep moving folks, nothing to see here.