Ug99 Poised on Afghan Border

By David L. Brown

I have written several times over the past few years about the spreading threat of Ug99, a wheat stem rust disease first identified in Uganda in 1999. It is a serious threat not only to wheat, but also related barley and rye varieties. Spores carried by the wind have been spreading Ug99 toward the major wheat growing regions stretching from Iran through Afghanistan and the other “Stans” and eventually to India and China. All of these nations are seriously dependent upon wheat crops to support their people. This disease does more than just reduce yields—it destroys entire crops. Agronomists are struggling to find or breed resistant varieties to replace the threatened “staff of life,” the mainwheat-beautiful source of food for about a third of the world’s people from southern Europe through China. The “bounteous waves of grain” as pictured here and that provide all-important food for a third of the world’s people are under serious threat.

Now the ugly disease has reached the border of Afghanistan and is poised to enter that nation, already in a state of chaos. Afghans are dependent upon two crops, wheat and opium poppies—and you can’t live on a diet of opium, or at least not for long.

According to a recent news item in New Scientist magazine, Afghan farmers harvested a bumper crop this year, thanks to timely Spring rains. But, the article continued, “… the beleaguered country can’t rest easy. The Ug99 wheat rust, a virulent fungus that wipes out entire crops, is poised to cross the border from Iran.”

The article, which appeared in the August 8, 2009 edition, continued:

Fungal spores have been spreading on the wind from Uganda, where the disease was first discovered in 1999. They reached the wheat fields of Iran two years ago, prompting scientists to warn that millions in Asia were at risk of starvation. If the epidemic reaches Afghanistan, its effects would be catastrophic. “Nearly all farmers in Afghanistan grow wheat for food or sale,” says Mahmood Osmanzai, a scientist working for the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in the country. Most of the wheat varieties grown in Afghanistan, and indeed around the world, are vulnerable to Ug99.

I’ve been reporting on this threat since my first post on the subject on August 31, 2006. For more details about the threat of this “ugly” wheat disease, read earlier posts here, here, and here.

In a world besieged by climate change, a spreading disease with the ability to destroy small grain crops is the last thing we need. Australia, formerly a leading exporter of foodstuffs, has been suffering long-standing drought conditions, and the wheat growing region of China has been similarly struck with dry conditions. Waving fields of grain are being replaced by dust storms reminiscent of the Dust Bowl Days of the U.S.

Afghanistan, with a population of around 30 million, is in serious danger of famine should the wheat crop fail. World stocks of grain and other foodstuffs are at record low levels, and aid agencies and foreign governments could be hard pressed to fill the shortage in case of  a devastated Afghan wheat crop. But that is a minor problem compared with the looming threat when (not if) Ug99 spreads through Pakistan and northern India and China, where more than two billion people are heavily dependent upon wheat as “the staff of life.” These three nations rank No. 1,2 and 6 in the world by population.

There is real fear that the Ug99 strain of wheat stem rust may find its way into North America. A spreading plague of plant disease across the wheat growing regions of the U.S. and Canada could mean disaster for a world already teetering on the brink of famine.

I’ll keep watching this important subject, which seems to attract little attention from the conventional media.

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