Wheat farmers need to write Congress about threat of Ug99 wheat disease

Pop quiz: who in history has probably saved more lives than anyone else? And what did he or she do for a living?

Answer: Dr. Norman Borlaug, a wheat breeder, who is credited with spurring the Green Revolu?tion, saving perhaps a billion people from starvation.

To many people, wheat is something to sing about in patriotic songs and the main ingredient of bread. But, more than that, the crop many of us have devoted our lives to growing is a staple food source all over the world, made even more important by that Revolution, a period of dramatic increases in productivity that kept millions from starvation. An estimated 20 percent of all calories consumed in the world come from wheat.

The progress promoted by world wheat production is under threat today, however, by something most Americans don?t even know exists ?a new and highly virulent race of a old wheat disease, a disease that has been under control since the days of the Green Revolution.

Ug99, named such because it was first discovered in Uganda in 1999, is a race of stem rust, a disease that infects the vascular tissues of wheat plants. It can cause 100 percent yield loss in infected plants.

This new race is virulent on plant genes that have provided stable resistance for nearly five decades. A large proportion of world wheat is now highly vulnerable, including nearly all spring wheat varieties and 75 percent of winter wheat varieties planted in the U.S.

Though the disease had been contained to Africa, the world got confirmation earlier this year that it had spread to Iran, meaning that the wheat fields of that country, Iraq, Pakistan, India, Syria and Turkey?which account for 20 percent of world wheat production?will soon be threatened as it spreads further on wind or clothing.

It doesn?t take a lot of imagination to conjure up the havoc spread of Ug99 will cause in terms of famine, finances and political instability. The best, and perhaps only, defense against these outcomes is increased research aimed at locating and deploying new genes for resistance in new wheat varieties.

But while we are looking at the critical vulnerability and possible destruction of 3/4 of the world?s wheat supply in one of the most volatile regions on earth, funding is being cut for world wheat research projects.

In the past, the U.S. government has typically funded the Consultative Group on Inter?national Agricultural Research (CGIAR) centers at around $25 million per year from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) budget.

About $5 million of that funding typically went to CIMMYT, the international center responsible for wheat improvement. CIMMYT develops new wheat varieties with higher yields and improved disease resistance for the world and facilitates international exchange of germplasm among wheat breeders. CIMMYT is now leading the international battle against Ug99.

Despite frantic meetings by members of the wheat chain, like NAWG and the National Wheat Improvement Committee, and public appeals for action from people as laudable as Borlaug, who wrote on the issue in the April 26 edition of The New York Times, this critical funding is being cut in this current fiscal year. And, the outlook for next year?s funding is no better.

Bread, something most Americans take for granted and millions around the world rely on to survive until the next day, is being threatened for the lack of $25 million from a country with a $14 trillion economy.

Of all the uncontrollable ?what if?s of farming, Ug99 is one threat that investment and ingenuity might be able to prevent, if the resources are there.

Please call your Members of Congress and urge them to act on this issue for the sake of the American wheat producer and people all over the world.

Paul Penner, a regular columnist for the Free Press, wrote this for the National Association of Wheat Growers newsletter. Penner is a wheat producer from Hillsboro.

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