Ugly Times Ahead as Death Spores Spread

By David L. Brown

Back in August, 2006 I wrote about the danger posed by an emerging plant disease called Ug99. This virulent form of wheat rust appeared in 1999 in Uganda from where it has slowly spread into Kenya and Ethiopia. It was expected to eventually cross the Red Sea, travel north, and at some future time reach the vast wheat growing areas of south Asia unless solutions could be found.

In my article, “A Looming Threat to World Food Supply?” (you can find it by using the search field at upper right), I warned of a potential plant pandemic that could destroy “the staff of life” in broad regions, leading to widespread famine and death by starvation.

In that article 19 months ago I quoted Dr. Norman Borlaug, winner of the Nobel Prize and known as the “father of the Green Revolution,” who said: “Stem rusts like Ug99 are catastrophic diseases because they cause complete annihilation of wheat crops over wide areas. The prospect of this disease becoming an epidemic in Africa, Asia and the Americas is real and must be stopped before it causes untold human suffering.”

I also noted that “plant scientists and seed producers are running scared to find resistant varieties before a global pandemic can become a reality,” and quoted from a scientific report which concluded that “because Ug99 has broken down the source of stem rust resistance that has protected much of the world’s wheat for 30 years, the crop is poised for an epidemic to spread like wildfire.”

Well, Ug99 is on the move, and faster than predicted or expected by plant scientists. According to an article in the latest issue of New Scientist magazine:

A WHEAT disease that could destroy most of the world’s main wheat crops could strike south Asia’s vast wheat fields two years earlier than research had suggested, leaving millions to starve. The fungus, called Ug99, has spread from Africa to Iran, and may already be in Pakistan. If so, this is extremely bad news, as Pakistan is not only critically reliant on its wheat crop, it is also the gateway to the Asian breadbasket, including the vital Punjab region.

The sudden jump was the result of airborne spores being carried by a major cyclone last June. Here is a map showing the path that Ug99 has taken toward the heart of the Asian wheat regions:

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As the map shows, Ug99 was expected to take a roundabout path to south Asia, first traveling northward from Yemen before moving across Turkey into northern Iran. Instead, thanks to Cyclone Gonu last Summer it appears it has taken a fast track straight across the Arabian Peninsula into central Iran and possibly beyond. The inset shows the major wheat growing regions that stretch from France to central India, all now in the path of the spreading spores.

The New Scientist article continues:

Scientists met this week in Syria to decide on emergency measures to track Ug99’s progress. They hope to slow its spread by spraying fungicide or even stopping farmers from planting wheat in the spores’ path. The only real remedy will be new wheat varieties that resist Ug99, and they may not be ready for five years. The fungus has just pulled ahead in the race.

Ug99, a virulent strain of black stem rust (Puccinia graminis) was identified in Uganda in 1999. Since then it has invaded Kenya and Ethiopia and, last year, Yemen. From previous fungal invasions, scientists expected the prevailing winds to carry Ug99 spores to Egypt, Turkey and Syria, and then east to Iran, a major wheat-grower, buying them some time. But on 8 June 2007, Cyclone Gonu hit the Arabian peninsula, the worst storm there for 30 years.

“We know it changed the winds,” says Wafa Khoury of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, because desert locusts the FAO had been tracking in Yemen blew north towards Iran instead of north-west as expected (see Map). “We think it may have done that to the rust spores.” This means, she says, that Ug99 has reached Iran a year or two earlier than predicted. The fear is that the same winds could have blown the spores into Pakistan, which is also north of Yemen, and where surveillance of the fungus is limited.

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.

As a side note, I think it is interesting that the surprising and rapid spread of the fungus, possibly as far as to Pakistan, took place as the result of a non-typical storm, possibly the result of changing climate patterns resulting from global warming.

Back in 2006, speculating on the possibility of widespread famine caused by Ug99, I wrote the following:

Is it reasonable to think that such an event could happen? Well, if you are familiar with the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s you have some idea of the possibilities. In the early 1800s, Ireland depended on its potato crop much as the entire world today relies on wheat, rice and corn. In the late summer of 1845 a fungus or blight appeared which almost completely destroyed Ireland’s precious crop of spuds.The blight had a devastating effect on the Emerald Isle, which had a population of only about eight million when the famine struck. The crisis continued for several years, resulting in an estimated half-million deaths, displacement of two million Irish refugees, and the emigration of about another two million to other countries such as the U.S. and Canada.

If new wheat varieties will not be available for five years, and the pathogen is already at the gates of major wheat growing areas, we may be witnessing the beginnings of a truly horrible chain of events. Wheat truly is the vital foodstuff for many people in south Asia. This wheat rust has the potential to destroy crops just as the potato blight that caused widespread devastation in 18th Century Ireland — but with the potential to affect billions, not just a few million as was the case with the Potato Famine.

The Irish were relatively few in number and as you can see from the paragraph above, many died and many more became refugees or immigrants. If Asia and the Mideast fall under the shadow of a similar crop failure, there will be no place for the billions of poor residents to go (although many will try and Europe in particular is likely to be overrun).

Widespread infection with this virulent plant disease would strike at the very heart of the Green Revolution, because it is precisely the highly specialized varieties of wheat and other grain crops that have fed the growth of populations in the subcontinent. Hundreds of millions if not billions of people there are absolutely dependent upon those crops. And, as we have recently discussed here, worldwide stocks of grain are at their lowest level ever and the world is already slipping toward potential famine such as has not been experienced in recent history. Imagine what adding a Ug99 pandemic to an already precarious food supply will do to our poor, over-populated world?

If a cyclone (the Indian Ocean equivalent of a hurricane) can so quickly spread these “spores of death,” what other vectors might cause Ug99 to rapidly spread to other regions even further from its source? Thousands of airplanes and ships traverse the world in every direction on a daily basis. What would it mean if spores should gain a foothold in the western plains of Canada, the Kansas wheat belt, and Australia’s already drought-stricken fields? It could happen, no doubt about it. And the potential damage is too awful to even contemplate.

There are many lessons here. For one, the danger of monocultural agriculture in which severely limited numbers of plants and varieties are heavily depended upon. For another, the fact that climate change is placing humanity in an increasingly vulnerable position vis a vis food supplies. For yet another, that the warnings of Malthus and Ehrlich will probably in the end prove to be valid and that humanity has bred beyond the limits of the Earth’s ability to provide.

Finally, it should be noted that the very region in the path of the spreading disease already is the most unsettled in the world. Adding famine to the problems of social ferment can quickly turn the region into one huge cluster of failed nations. And then there is the world’s dependence upon the oil that region holds … but I need not even continue to outline the magnitude of the disaster that may lie ahead.

Many threats loom over the world today. This one, a mutant wheat disease, is only the latest to be added to the catalog of dangers. The U.S. is presently considering listing the polar bear as in danger of extinction. How long until humankind will join the bears on the list of threatened species? Something to think about, isn’t it?

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