Prevent spread of damaging wheat rusts-UN


UN agency boosts efforts to detect and prevent spread of damaging wheat rusts

A farmer harvests his wheat crop in Bamyan, Afghanistan. Photo: FAO/Giulio Napolitano

15 April 2016 – The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said today it is expanding a partnership to inhibit the ongoing spread of wheat rusts, a group of fungal plant diseases that block the production of the staple grain and other crops, which is raising concern in Central Asia and the Middle East.

As part of its efforts, the UN agency is developing its collaboration with the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas and the University of Aarhus' Global Rust Reference Centre to provide training on surveillance, resistance and management.

Country surveys and sample analysis are also planned to better understand and manage the spread of the menace to wheat production – which, in addition to Central Asia and the Middle East is posing a threat in the world's major wheat-producing areas.

“Under conducive conditions, up to 80 per cent or more of a farmer's yield can be lost due to rust infections, so building countries' capacity to detect them and better understand the ways the various strains of the disease spread is crucial to preventing epidemics and limiting losses,” said Fazil Dusunceli, a Plant Protection Officer at FAO, in a press release.

A highly mobile plant killer

Wheat rust comes in three types – yellow, stem and leaf rusts – with yellow and stem rusts spreading widely in recent years. The rusts have the capacity to turn a healthy looking crop that is only weeks away from harvest into a tangle of yellow leaves or black stems and shrivelled grains at harvest.

The plant plague is highly mobile, spreading rapidly over large distances by wind, and can wreak havoc on crops if not tackled properly when first detected.

The most well-known strain is Ug99, a highly potent form of stem rust first detected in Uganda in 1999 and which has since spread to 13 countries, some as far as Yemen and Iran. It has the potential to affect the majority of wheat varieties grown worldwide. Most recently it has been detected in Egypt, one of the Middle East's most important wheat producers, the UN agency said.

Also cause for concern is a new strain of yellow rust, called Warrior, which has made its way from northern Europe to Turkey, affecting various countries along the way.

Building countries' capacity to counter the threat

FAO said that along with the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas and Turkey's General Directorate of Agricultural Research International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, it is collaborating with the University of Aarhus and the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative to train plant protection officers at a 10-day workshop starting this week in Izmir, Turkey.

Twenty-two officers from nine Central Asian and Near East countries with known cases of wheat rusts will be trained on rust surveillance, resistance and management during the workshop.

Once back in their countries, the officers will survey fields and send samples to University of Aarhus in Denmark, where they will be analyzed to determine how far and how quickly various strains of the disease are spreading.

Early action is essential to containing the spread of wheat rust, and planting resistant cultivars or timely fungicide sprays can prevent crops from catching the disease in the first place. But procuring these seeds in advance and getting a fungicide distribution chain up and running can be an issue, especially in developing countries, FAO said.

In addition to Central Asia and the Middle East, FAO said it is also engaging with countries across Eastern Africa, where new strains of stem rust have been detected in Ethiopia and Kenya, to develop a comprehensive regional response. This includes supporting surveillance and building capacity in Eritrea and Ethiopia to facilitate rapid responses to newly detected strains.