Study: Stem Rust Disease Could Threaten Global Food Supply

Stem Rust, Photo Credit: Wikimedia

A global team led by researchers from the University of Minnesota (U of M) warns in a new study that without increased financial support for disease resistance research, new strains of a devastating fungal disease could leave millions without affordable access to food.

The study, published in the current edition of the journal Science, examines how Ug99 – new virulent forms of stem rust first found in Uganda in 1999—could continue its movement across Africa, the Middle East and southwest Asia.  According to the team, the disease threatens food supplies for millions of people who depend on wheat and other small grains. Scientists have developed new wheat varieties with some resistance to the deadly disease, but the disease evolves and mutates into new forms, requiring new resistant varieties to be developed.

According to the U of M press release, several projects to develop resistance to Ug99 are under way, including an international consortium known as the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative, a $26 million, five-year effort funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. U of M economists estimate, though, that as much as $51 million a year is needed. That number was reached by estimating the economic losses that would likely have occurred without the 20th century research that kept earlier variations of the disease at bay.

“Failing to increase and sustain investments in rust-resistance research is tantamount to accepting an increase in the risk of yield losses on one of the world’s food staples,” said Phil Pardey, leader of the research team and a professor of applied economics at U of M. “Spending on stem rust research has been inadequate for some time, and increased research investment must be sustained over the long haul if science is to keep on top of these ever-evolving crop diseases.”

Collaborators on the new study are from the University of Minnesota’s Stakman-Borlaug Cereal Rust Center; the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Canberra, Australia; the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Mexico; and universities in South Africa and Australia.

For more information to the study, go to http://www1.umn.edu/news/news-releases/2013/UR_CONTENT_439411.html.