Wheat rust threat rising

Experts say it is only a matter of time before wind carries a deadly wheat stem pathogen into Pakistan, the ninth largest wheat producing nation in the world. Known as Ug99, the disease could potentially decimate the country’s highly vulnerable wheat crop and cause a huge food security problem.



“There is a real possibility that winds could move the pathogen directly into southern Pakistan from Yemen or even the Horn of Africa. Realistically, I believe it is only a matter of time before Ug99 or variants appear in Pakistan,” said David Hodson of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Wheat Rust Disease Global Programme.



According to FAO, Ug99 is a virulent race of wheat stem rust first identified in Uganda in 1998 and 1999 that leaves behind fields filled with shriveled wheat grains.



Over the past decade, FAO estimates that 29 countries in East and North Africa, the Near East, and Central and South Asia, accounting for 37 percent of global wheat production, have been affected by the wind-borne Ug99 or were at potential risk.



Major wheat rust epidemics have occurred in the past, namely in the 1950s in North America and in 1993-94 in Ethiopia, with devastating consequences. Wheat rust decimated the grain crop across Pakistan in 1977, forcing the government to import over 2 million tons of wheat.



An Ug99 outbreak could be even more disastrous, FAO warns.















Photo: Kamila Hyat/IRIN
Stem rust disease could decimate wheat, a staple food crop

On high alert



In 2008, FAO put Pakistan and five other wheat producing countries on high alert following the detection of Ug99 in Iran.



“At present this virulent race of stem rust does not seem to have established a strong presence in Iran. However, the concern is that in time this status in Iran could change and analysis of regional wind patterns indicates that the pathogen could move into Pakistan,” Hodson told IRIN.



Soon after the discovery of Ug99 in Iran, Mujeeb Qazi, programme director of Pakistan’s National Wheat Program, warned that along with 80 percent of all wheat varieties planted in Asia and Africa most of Pakistan’s major wheat strains tested in Kenya over the past few years did not have adequate resistance to the disease.



“The big cause for concern in Pakistan is the widespread cultivation of wheat varieties that are extremely susceptible to Ug99 or variants. Of major concern is the cultivation of single wheat varieties like ‘Inquilab-91’ on millions of hectares in Pakistan,” Hodson said.



He also said many of the wheat-growing areas in Pakistan, particularly in the south, had a combination of heat and moisture that the disease favoured.



In 2008, the government allocated Rs 40 million [US$645,000] for research to combat the threat of Ug99 and over the past two years, the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Livestock has been working on developing resistant varieties.



Disastrous consequences



An outbreak of Ug99 would spell disaster in a country where most of the population is dependent on wheat to meet their basic food needs. According to official figures, 22 million tons of wheat is consumed in Pakistan every year, making it the fifth biggest wheat consumer in the world.



“Basically, we eat only roti [flat wheat flour bread] with pickles, day after day. This is all we can afford,” Muhammad Javed, a local labourer and father of six, told IRIN.



There are millions more like him in Pakistan, a country in which 35 percent of its 165 million citizens live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.



“If wheat stem rust gets here, we would see famine,” Shahzad Chandio, a farmer in the southern Sindh province, told IRIN from the town of Jamshoro.



kh/at/ed