A new wheat resistant to the Ug99 fungus, a virulent disease that can wipe out entire fields of the grain, may lift yields over existing varieties of the world’s most widely-grown cereal.
The new seeds, a result of mutations induced by bombarding wheat plants with radiation at International Atomic Energy Agency laboratories in Austria, may boost yields by 5 percent, Miriam Kinyua, the plant breeder who helped run the project, said in a Sept. 5 interview in Eldoret, Kenya.
The U.S. named Ug99 one of the top risks to food supplies in a March global threat report, saying spread to South Asia is likely within the next few years and could cause short-term supply disruptions. The resistant wheat developed at the IAEA offers "much more" protection to Ug99 than tolerant varieties identified in recent years, according to the agency.
"It looks better than what is on our farms," said Joachim Mibei, a Kenyan farmer with 10 acres (4 hectares) of land who inspected the new wheat at a farming show in Eldoret last week. "I’m willing to try it, because right now it’s a lot of work growing wheat and making sure you get something."
Researchers around the world, backed by organizations including the United Nations and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have been racing to find resistant seeds since the new fungus, a variety of stem rust, was first identified in Uganda 14 years ago.
"I have three acres of material now, and they have all been booked by the seed companies," Kinyua said at a presentation of the new wheat organized by the IAEA and Kenya’s University of Eldoret. The resistant planting material can be shared with other countries, based on cooperation agreements, she said.
Stem rust occurs worldwide wherever wheat is grown, and losses can be 50 percent to 70 percent over a large area, while individual fields can be destroyed, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Services.
The Ug99 variety of the fungus has spread beyond Africa, with findings in Yemen in 2006 and Iran in 2007, according to a global monitoring system to provide early warning of stem rust, developed by the El Batan, Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, or Cimmyt.
"It is a very dangerous disease because it can spread by wind and very fast," said Qu Liang, director of a joint research division run by the IAEA and the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization. "Once it lands on the plant, it begins destroying it."
A 1953 stem-rust plague destroyed about 40 percent of the U.S. spring-wheat crop. That infestation prompted plant breeders like U.S. researcher Norman Borlaug, father of the "green revolution," to create new breeds of fungus-resistant cereals.
"In 2004 we called Norman Borlaug and told him there was a new race of stem rust," said Kinyua. "He said it couldn’t be true because it had not been seen for over 30 years."
Borlaug, who died in 2009, was persuaded to travel to Kenya to examine the new fungus. He helped coordinate the worldwide search for strains of wheat that showed resistance to Ug99, Kinyua said.
Bangladesh introduced wheat tolerant to Ug99 last year and Nepal in 2010, according to Cimmyt. Iran said in 2010 it had produced a seed resistant to the disease, containing the threat after finding the fungus in the west of the country.
Farmers across the world grew wheat on 215.8 million hectares last season, ahead of corn with 175.8 million hectares and rice with 157.2 million hectares, according to USDA data.
World wheat inventories may fall to a five-year low by June 30 as rising consumption outpaces an increase in production to 705.4 million metric tons, the USDA estimates.