Stemming the Rust – The Global Battle Against Wheat Fungus

A battle is being waged in wheat fields across the world to stave off an impending calamity that can ravage global food security

By Sarosh Bana, Executive Editor of Business India magazine and EWCA Mumbai Chapter President

(Note: This article originally appeared in Business India magazine on April 1, 2013.)

South Asian countries, where wheat is a staple cereal for many, is vulnerably poised in the path of an exceptionally virulent fungus that can wipe out entire farmlands.

Farmers and agriculturist scientists in the region are hunkering down to fortify themselves against this peril that can undermine the food security of millions.

Wheat stem rust fungus.

Wheat stem rust fungus.

More than 20 wheat scientists from five South Asian countries – India, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bhutan – participated last fortnight in a comprehensive training programme in Kathmandu on wheat rust monitoring and disease management.

Designed to raise a new generation of agro-scientists equipped to identify the more virulent stem, leaf and yellow rusts that can devastate entire farmlands and to create wheat strains that can withstand this scourge, the 2013 SAARC Wheat Rust Surveillance Workshop and Training Programme was the fourth such annual event to be held in South Asia. It was organised by the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) Project, managed by the US’s Cornell University.

An effort of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI), DRRW is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK Department for International Development (DFID). It is partnered by 23 leading universities and research institutions that include the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), Nepalese Agricultural Research Council (NARC), CIMMYT (the Spanish acronym for the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre), International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), and Hyderabad-based Sathguru Management Consultants.

Gordon Cisar, associate director of the DRRW Project at Cornell who was part of the training faculty, says the programme has its genesis in Uganda in 1998 when a particularly virulent reddish-brown fungus known as stem rust (designated Ug99) started blighting wheat fields. Borne by air as well as by human movement, this treacherous pathogen soon scythed its way across eastern Africa and Yemen and eventually reached Iran, destroying croplands.

“Fears of a spread into Asia were confirmed when this race [of Ug99] was detected in Iran in 2007,” notes Arun Kumar Joshi, South Asia regional coordinator for CIMMYT. “This has raised serious concerns that Ug99 could follow the same migratory route from Africa to Asia as the stripe rust resistant gene Yr9 and cause major epidemics across the epidemiological region of South Asia.” He adds that the global wind systems can funnel this pestilence to any part of the world.

Every region hence needs to guard against this by developing numerous wheat strains, because ultimately only very few of them turn out to be immune to the pathogen, says Joshi. Developing a strain is a painstaking exercise as it takes an average of eight years, and it can well prove futile if the strain proves to be susceptible to the stem rust. The Ug99 pathogen and its variants have a unique virulence to which much of the world’s wheat varieties lack resistance.

Endangered wheat can doom food security, wheat being the third most produced cereal crop today, after maize and rice, and sown on more land area than any other commercial food crop. It is the leading source of protein for people the world over and can be easily cultivated on a large scale, stored for long periods and processed in a myriad value-added ways.

The Ugandan infections inspired the father of the Green Revolution, the late Dr Norman Borlaug, to mobilise a global effort to mitigate this threat. Thus was launched BGRI in 2005, on confirmation that Ug99 had overcome the resistance gene Borlaug and others had developed for wheat over a half century earlier. It was Borlaug’s first visit to India and Pakistan in 1963 that prepared the ground for India’s green revolution, which spawned hardier high-yielding wheat varieties that boosted wheat productivity.

Indu Sharma, head of the Indian agriculture ministry’s Directorate of Wheat Research (DWR) based in Karnal, Haryana, says that sustained research by her agency and its collaborators nationwide has led to preventive measures that may well yield a bumper crop this year on the 29.4 million hectares under wheat cultivation. “India has seen wheat production in excess of 80 million tonnes during each of the last three years and is reporting successful restriction of Ug99 due to 22 wheat lines or varieties found resistant to it,” she mentions. “No type of wheat rust has reached epidemic proportions in our country.”

NARC scientist Sarala Sharma says that with Nepal flanked by India and China, two of the world’s leading wheat producers, protection of her country’s wheat fields from rust is paramount as disease outbreaks can rapidly spread from one country to another, carried by the wind. She adds that in this regard, nearly 6 per cent of the 7.67 lakh hectares under wheat in Nepal has been sown with resistant varieties over the past one year and 15 per cent additional acreage will be covered over the next season. Five more resistant varieties are currently under development by her Council.

Aiding in the research effort has been handheld tablet-compatible software developed by Sathguru. The company’s information specialist, Anantha Murthy, says farmers and scientists can quickly and efficiently update global surveillance data using this information technology known as the SAARC Toolbox, a kit that includes a rust survey application developed by Sathguru. The data are fed into each country’s surveillance database and ultimately into a global “rust mapper”.