September 8, 2005

Wheat fungus may pose global threat: report

By George Obulutsa

NAIROBI (Reuters) - A resilient new strain of wheat fungus
from east Africa is threatening to spread to the Middle East,
Asia and the Americas and bring catastrophic crop damage,
scientists said on Thursday.

Researchers said the new Ug99 form of stem rust could be
spread by the wind and attacked many varieties of spring and
winter wheat that were resistant to other strains of the

The strain could easily spread from Uganda, Kenya and
Ethiopia, which were the countries currently affected.

"Recognising the potential that this disease has...there's
almost no one exempt," said Ronnie Coffman, head of Cornell
University's Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics.

Coffman led the group of scientists who conducted research
into Ug99, and released a report on Thursday on how to fight
its spread.

"What we have to achieve is to stop this disease from
spreading to other parts of the world. Otherwise we are going
to see a catastrophe," said Masa Iwanaga, director general of
Mexico's International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre


The scientists gave no firm numbers on potential damage,
but said they feared an epidemic similar to those that caused
major grain losses in North America in 1903, 1905 and 1950-54
and famine in Asia.

All those occurred before the cultivation of wheat
varieties that were immune to stem rust, the report said.

Discovered in Uganda in 1999, the new strain could also be
spread by travellers.

A previous strain identified in Ethiopia in 1986 arrived in
Egypt five years later, and prevailing wind patterns made it
likely the new strain would travel similarly, the scientists

The report said there was still time to isolate wheat
varieties resistant to Ug99 and distribute them to farmers with
susceptible crops, especially in north Africa and Asia.

Crop monitoring must also be instituted in regions close to
east Africa, it said.

The report was prepared by scientists from CIMMYT, the
Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, the Ethiopian
Agricultural Research Organisation and Syria's International
Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas.