A Killer Lurks Among Us

, former senior scientist, Food and Environment | October 31, 2011, 5:26 pm EDT
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From the smell of freshly baked bread, to spaghetti, couscous, chapattis and naan, wheat, the staff of life, is an iconic food. It is also one of the world’s most widely grown crops, supplying about 31 percent of human food calories.

Wheat is a versatile food, high in protein and other nutrients. The unique properties of wheat proteins and selection of desirable traits over the millennia have resulted in flour that gives western bread dough its ability to produce loaves. Breeding has also produced pastry wheat that gives baked goods their flaky quality, and pasta wheat that imparts a chewy texture.

Wheat is also plagued, as are all crops, by a variety of diseases, some of which can wither entire regions. One of the most devastating is called stem rust, which produces spores that can spread hundreds of miles or more in a summer. Where the right conditions exist, losses can be 50 to 70 percent regionally, and as high as 100 percent locally. Stem rust is joined by stripe rust, leaf rust, and other pathogens, in the pantheon of wheat diseases.

Wheat stem rust, USDA photo by Yue Jin

Enter the villain

Although there has been justifiable concern about the potential of drought  to drastically reduce the harvest of wheat and other crops, resulting in increased food prices that have swelled the ranks of the malnourished, most have probably never heard of wheat rust.

In part, that is because stem rust and its cousins have been successfully controlled for over 50 years through public sector conventional breeding programs that provided wheat with resistance to these diseases.

Recently, though, a new and virulent strain of stem rust, called Ug99, emerged in Uganda. As with the ability of bacteria to evolve resistance to antibiotics, plant pathogens can, and will, evolve to overcome the ability of plants to fight them off. If not stopped, this new strain (or race as plant pathologists call it) could cause tremendous losses of wheat world-wide.

Public sector science steps up

That is why the low-key announcement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that it has found resistance to the new stem rust in its collection of wheat varieties from around the world, called landraces, is such good news. This discovery, along with those of USDA’s international collaborators, should allow conventional crop breeders to deploy the new resistance into commercial wheat varieties, heading off possible disaster.

Nothing better illustrates the value of public sector research. Do we really want to gamble our food supply on whether the private seed sector would step in and do what is needed?

Although not as dramatic as the situation with stem rust, the collective results of agricultural crop breeding research are invaluable, with resistance to pathogens of virtually all crops, improved quality, stress resistance, improved yield, and many other properties resulting from these efforts. Recent work on sustainable and organic agriculture is also valuable, especially for reducing agriculture’s substantial environmental impacts and making crops more resilient in the face of climate change.

Reaping what we sow?

This is why recent public research funding cuts, and possible future cuts in the name of debt reduction, are so disturbing.

Unfortunately, research budgets are mostly out-of-sight-out–of-mind, lost in frantic discussions about debt and legitimate immediate concerns about jobs.

USDA and journalists need to do a better job of reminding the public how important this research can be. They have a responsibility to communicate this work more broadly, so that the public and its representatives can make informed decisions about supporting it.

But if political expediency prevails, and if we don’t better prioritize and maintain crucial public research spending, we will all come to regret the results.

Posted in: Food and Agriculture

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  • Alexander S.

    Joe is absolutely correct; let the rust destroy all the wheat and rescue humanity from the scourge of abundant wholesome food. It would be best if wheat were exterminated and we were all forced to eat our peanut butter and jelly spread over naturally occuring insect larvae or slabs of turf or something. Hurray for wheat rust!!!

  • Joe Mason


    When I saw “A killer…” I thought this was going to be an anti-wheat piece. In that vein, apparently you’re not in agreement with anti-grain (or anti-legume) ideas. Paul and Sou-Ching Jaminet in “The Perfect Health Diet” claim (convincingly) that they cause autoimmune conditions in the digestive tract. If this falls within your range of interests I recommend it. Liked your informative article.

    Joe Mason

  • William (Rex/Walter) etc.

    Now you inform us this dreadfully frightening and urgent “lurking killer” has actually been drifting around inocuously for 12 years?? What is it waiting for if it’s certain to kill all our wheat, as you hint it must? Little wonder the private sector hasn’t pissed a lot of money into combatting it — that’s the avowed purview of public funded programs like USDA, frantically urged on by wasteful grant money hounds like yourselves. What the hell sort of science do you crackpot sophists at UCS subsribe to, anyway? Anyone who exposes your scaremongering is a “troll”…that’s real sciency too. UCS is an abomination to real science.

  • Doug Gurian-Sherman

    Web trolls like William (AKA Rex or Walter) are not clever enough to alter his/her writing style in comments to my posts, but do provide an opportunity to expand on my points, which I appreciate.

    William neglects to mention that his private sector mentors spend much (some say half) of their plant technology research budgets on so-called antiquated plant breeding. If it was useless, why are they continuing to emphasis it? It’s because GE cannot yet approach breeding by virtually any measure.

    GE can stick a gene for some limited number of traits into a crop, but is completely dependent on breeding to supply continually improved (e.g for yield, pest resistance and so on) crop varieties to “pop” engineered genes into.

    And if the private sector was up to the task, or interested, in dealing with wheat stem rust using GE, why have they not done it already? The new virulent race of stem rust, Ug99, was discovered in 1999–12 years ago, plenty of time for GE to do its magic.

    William (Rex/Walter), thanks again for the comment. I am looking forward to seeing you again on my next blog!

  • William

    It’s a fine, fine time to be alive! Generations ago wheat rust and potato blight and other plant diseases resulted in starvation of countless humans. Today, the private sector will just pop that rust resistance gene into our wheat for an immediate solution to the rust threat. No need to wait hungrily for plodding USDA breeding experiments and tedious certified seed development. Public sector research still has it’s place (mostly as a museum of obsolete technologies), but we could do with some serious fiscal belt-tightening among the musty old government programs with their crusty old public servants.