Thursday, June 25, 2009

The race is on...

A rather frightening strain of rust is trying to spread from its origin to most of the world's wheat fields.  I love the name - Ug 99.  It definitely has the attention of wheat scientists around the world.

Crop scientists fear the Ug99 fungus could wipe out more than 80% of worldwide wheat crops as it spreads from eastern Africa. It has already jumped the Red Sea and traveled as far as Iran. Experts say it is poised to enter the breadbasket of northern India and Pakistan, and the wind will inevitably carry it to Russia, China and even North America -- if it doesn't hitch a ride with people first.

"It's a time bomb," said Jim Peterson, a professor of wheat breeding and genetics at Oregon State University in Corvallis. "It moves in the air, it can move in clothing on an airplane. We know it's going to be here. It's a matter of how long it's going to take."

Though most Americans have never heard of it, Ug99 -- a type of fungus called stem rust because it produces reddish-brown flakes on plant stalks -- is the No. 1 threat to the world's most widely grown crop.

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico estimates that 19% of the world's wheat, which provides food for 1 billion people in Asia and Africa, is in imminent danger. American plant breeders say $10 billion worth of wheat would be destroyed if the fungus suddenly made its way to U.S. fields.

Fear that the fungus will cause widespread damage has caused short-term price spikes on world wheat markets. Famine has been averted thus far, but experts say it's only a matter of time.

"A significant humanitarian crisis is inevitable," said Rick Ward, the coordinator of the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. [More]

I have to believe that Big Seed (is that a fair appellation?) is in overdrive developing a GM variety resistant to this fungus.  But upon reflection, this is where it gets interesting.

Suppose Monsanto did come up with a GM answer to this global threat to the world's most-consumed grain.  I'm guessing the resistance traits would breed true, so like soybeans, a real saved-seed issue arises.  Outside our country it would be virtually unenforceable, especially considering the absolute risk once the fungus is in your fields.

I suppose it could be released only in countries with legal systems and intellectual property laws, like the EU and US, but I struggle to believe this stuff would not be smuggled like drugs to the entire globe, with indignant cries of righteousness. Already, GM oppononents can see such a scenario coming.
One of the consequences of the spread of Ug99 is a campaign by Monsanto Corporation and other major producers of genetically manipulated plant seeds to promote wholesale introduction of GMO wheat varieties said to be resistant to the Ug99 fungus. Biologists at Monsanto and at the various GMO laboratories around the world are working to patent such strains.

Norman Borlaug, the former Rockefeller Foundation head of the Green Revolution is active in funding the research to develop a fungus resistant variety against Ug99 working with his former center in Mexico, the CIMMYT and ICARDA in Kenya, where the pathogen is now endemic. So far, about 90% of the 12,000 lines tested are susceptible to Ug99. That includes all the major wheat cultivars of the Middle East and west Asia. At least 80% of the 200 varieties sent from the United States can't cope with infection. The situation is even more dire for Egypt, Iran, and other countries in immediate peril.

Even if a new resistant variety was ready to be released today it would take two or three years' seed increase in order to have just enough wheat seed for 20 percent of the acres planted to wheat in the world." (Thanks Nelly)

I'm blogging this post from "Global Research" as an update on the posts on black stem rust, because I haven't seen much on it from other sources. I hope-really- that an effective policy will be enacted at global level to prevent the patenting of Ug99 resistant wheat. This will be dramatic for poor farmers who cannot afford patented seeds. [More]
How should Big Seed handle this prospective discovery?  How should they try to market it?

Why not give it away to indigenous breeders in poor countries?  It'd not like they can pay for it in the first place.  And I'm sure Big Seed could recover a significant part of the undoubtedly serious development costs from selling me 17-stack corn.

More importantly, it could be a key to unlocking GMO acceptance in places little progress has been made. 

If nothing else, it would mess with GM-critic heads.

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