Uganda and Wheat Fungus

The following is one of the reasons given for trying to preserve historic seed varieties.  It comes from NG (Jul 2011, p. 116):

. . . Because if disease or future climate change decimates one of the handful of plants and animals we’ve come to depend on to feed our growing planet, we might desperately need one of those varieties we’ve let go extinct.  The precipitous loss of the world’s wheat diversity is a particular cause for concern.  One of wheat’s oldest adversaires, Puccinia graminis, a fungus known as stem rust, is spreading across the globe.  The pestilence’s current incarnation is a virulent and fast-mutating strain dubbed Ug99 because it was first identified in Uganda in 1999.  It then spread to Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Yemen.  By 2007 it had jumped the Persian Gulf to Iran.  Scientists predict that Ug99 will soon make its way into the the breadbaskets of India and Pakistan, then infiltrate Russia, China, and–with a mere hitch of a spore on an airplane passenger’s shoe–our hemisphere as well.

Roughly 90 percent of the world’s wheat is defenseless against UG99.  Were the fungus to come to the U.S., an estimated one billion dollar’s worth of wheat would be at risk.  Scientists project that in Asia and Africa alone the portion of wheat in imminent danger would leave one billion people without the primary food source.  A significant humanitarian crisis is inevitable, according to Rick Ward of the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project at Cornell.

The world’s population is expected to reach seven billion people this year.  By 2045 it could grow to nine billion.  Some experts say we’ll need to double our food production to keep up with demand as emerging economies consume more meat and diary.  Given the added challenges posed by climate change and constantly mutating diseases like Ug99, it is becoming ever more urgent to find ways to increase the food yield without exacerbating the genetic anemia coursing through industrialized agriculture’s ostensible abundance.  The world has become increasingly dependent on technology-driven, one-size-fits-all solutions to problems.  Yet the best hope for securing food’s future may depend on our ability to preserve the locally cultivated foods of the past. 

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