International wheat experts meet to tackle the 'plant plague'

Wednesday, 18 March, 2009

Leading wheat experts from Australia, Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas have reported significant progress in developing new varieties of wheat that can resist a virulent plant disease that currently threatens wheat production worldwide, but also warned that the disease could possibly spread to Australia.

The warning came yesterday as the scientists took part in the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative 2009 Technical Workshop, a 4-day conference in Ciudad Obregón, Mexico, named after Nobel Prize Winner, Norman Borlaug.

The scientists confirmed that the dangerous and newly emerged stem rust fungus, known as Ug99 or the 'plant plague', has spread across Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen and Iran, and is on the march towards South Asia. They said that long-distance movement to other regions cannot be excluded.

They estimate that 90% of the varieties planted in farmers’ fields around the world lack resistance to the pathogen.

Named for its discovery in Uganda 10 years ago, Ug99 is well established already in Kenya, where in some areas the reddish, windborne fungus has decimated 80% of the wheat in farmers’ fields.

“We should keep a close eye on any movements into southern Africa as well, because there is historical evidence that high-altitude winds and even hurricanes can transport plant pathogens from that region into the Americas and Australia, although these would be rare events,” said David Hodson, a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) expert from the Mexico-based CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center).

Every region of the world is represented at the meeting, organised by the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative, a group led by, among others, CIMMYT, the Syria-based International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), Cornell University, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).

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