Not Your Father’s Rust Spore

I recently blogged about the developing honey bee crisis, commonly referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder, and the possible dramatic effects that it could levy on various agriculture markets. Off the topic of this article I was having a discussion with a friend the other day about the possible use of tagging honey bees with RFID technology. Coincidentally, I also received an e-mail earlier today from someone who did mention that RFID technology could support this. On the surface this sounds like a solid solution to at least finding out where the honey bees are disappearing to considering they have been vanishing without trace.

In addition to Colony Collapse Disorder, stem rust (Ug99) is another serious issue now facing global agriculture markets, more specifically various types of wheat in this case, that could have serious ramifications on global agriculture markets.
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA):
An emerging virulent stem rust race and vulnerability of wheat in the U.S. and worldwide.
While it is a long-term issue at some point it could disseminate some high flying dramatics on global wheat prices. The threat couldn’t have come at a worse time as wheat stocks are at the lowest they have been in many years. In a recent interview, Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug, considered to one of the fathers of the Green Revolution, said “this thing has immense potential for social and human destruction.
Ug99 is a virulent strain of black stem rust fungus that was discovered within Uganda in 1999. Farmers throughout the globe have been able to grow various types of wheat that resist stem rust with exception to Ug99. At present, the amount of wheat crops presently grow world-wide that is resistant to it is rather minuscule.
Ug99 has been propagating ever so slowly across East Africa and in January of 2007 rust spores traveled into regions of Yemen and Sudan. Based off of data from existing models that have tracked other similar airborne spores a very strong probability exists that spores will now make their way into various areas of the Middle East including Turkey and India.
Additionally, there have been documented cases of individuals carrying rust spores on their clothing. Considering that global travel has propagated exponentially since the last major outbreak of stem rust it has the potential to “spread like wild fire” this day in age.
Stem rust is nothing new. It has been the culprit of major wheat blights throughout the history of agriculture. The last major case to hit the wheat fields in North America was in 1954. It single handedly wiped out between 40 to 50% of the crop that year. Rust spores can be so lethal to crops that is was stockpiled as a biological weapon during the cold war. However, the spores pose no direct threat to humans.
After the 1954 rust episode, Borlaug successfully developed wheat that resisted stem rust. The project grew into the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). The rust-resistant wheat that he developed eradicated large amounts of chronic hunger in many parts of the world and eventually won Borlaug the Nobel peace price in 1970.
At present, of the 40+ genes that are know for their resistance to stem rust, less than 10 work only partially against Ug99 according to Rich Ward, head of the Global Rust Initiative.
The first line of defense against rust spores is fungicide. However, farmers in third world countries who stand to lose the most financially from Ug99 cannot afford the fungicide. Additionally, if further outbreaks occur prices of the fungicide will be driven up because of limited global stockpiles.
But even developed and wealthy countries face problematic circumstances. For example, the United States has been fighting soybean rust with fungicide that arrived from hurricane Ivan in 2004. If Ug99 is detected within the United States there would not be enough fungicide to combat rust spores for soybeans and wheat simultaneously.
However, according to the USDA, there might be enough fungicide if the United States fights Ug99 the same way as it is currently dealing with soya rust. This is accomplished by identifying outbreaks with a DNA based field test and disseminating the results via various forms of media, such as SBUSA to farmers. The end result is that farmers would only spray when danger is detected.
CIMMYT has also been addressing this issue by taking top-yielding varieties of wheat and crossing them with seed collections that is resistant to Ug99. For approximately the past two years crosses have been tested for resistance at field stations in Kenya and Ethiopia. Resistant strains are sent back to CIMMYT and assessed for yield as well as other qualities. Resistant lines are now being grown on over 20 plots in India, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
While this may sound promising the real problem lies in having enough seed so that if Ug99 hits there will be enough to plant the next wheat crop. This takes time and it will only happen if the new resistant varieties match or exceed existing yields. Additionally, there is as much art to this as science. There are no standard reasons why wheat that grows in the United States might grow as well in say India but fail in other parts of Asia unless it is crossed with a local variety.
The resistant lines must be just as good as the ones that are being utilized now or farmers won’t use them. It’s estimated that it will take approximately 5 percent of wheat fields dedicated to growing the resistant varieties so that enough seed can be generated to plant an entire country’s fields with Ug99 resistant wheat.
At this juncture it all really all depends on what Ug99 does now. Stem rust can arrive in a new growing area and lurk for years before it gets the right conditions for an outbreak. However, Ug99 presents another issue that will have to be dealt with. Spores blowing in the wind now are from the asexual stage that grows on wheat. Should spores blow onto leaves of its other host, the barberry bush, they will morph into the sexual form and swap genes with whatever other stem rusts they find. If breeding varieties that resist Ug99 wasn’t challenging enough it will be further complicated by the fact that what blows into one region will not be the same as what blow out.
Furthermore, Ug99 will find that the agriculture industry has changed dramatically during its dormancy, much to its preferment. Decades ago the majority of wheat wasn’t as heavily irrigated and fertilized as it is today. The wheat fields of today are more prone to fungus due to the denser and damper conditions of growing fields.
Also adding fuel to the flame is the issue of global travel. There have been several documented cases of travelers carrying rust spores on their clothing. Some fear that Ug99 could also be spread for the purposes of warfare. For example, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security met in March of 2007 to entertain the possibility that someone or some group may want to transport Ug99 deliberately.
All in all is appears the science of defeating Ug99 is moving as fast as it can but it appears that it may be too little to late. The Jury is still out on this one and only time will tell.
Weekly Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT) Wheat Futures
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Wheat Futures
Monthly Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT) Wheat Futures
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CBOT Wheat Futures
by Paul Skarp
Aaron Trading
Toll-Free Telephone: 866-455-3633

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