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Biotech Science

Newly Discovered Fungus Threatens World Wheat Crop 236

Posted by Zonk
from the swarm-of-hungry-hungry-hippos-not-helping dept.
RickRussellTX writes "The UN reports that a variety of the rust fungus originally detected in Uganda in 1999 has already spread as far north as Iran, threatening wheat production across its range. The fungus infects wheat stems and affects 80% of wheat varieties, putting crops at risk and threatening the food sources for billions of people across central Asia. Although scientists believe they can develop resistant hybrids, the fungus is moving much faster than anticipated and resistant hybrids may still be years away. Meanwhile, national governments in the path of the fungus are telling folks that there is nothing to worry about."
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Newly Discovered Fungus Threatens World Wheat Crop

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  • Boom! (Score:5, Funny)

    by BadAnalogyGuy (945258) <BadAnalogyGuy@gmail.com> on Sunday March 16, 2008 @11:24PM (#22769950)
    The question isn't whether we need to send John Madden in with some Boom! Fast Actin' Tinactin!, but can we eat this new fungus?

    Some fungi are delicious.
  • i'm so sick of being told of what i need to be afraid of. no wonder the world is full of pill popping zombies, i just wish these people would fuck off with their end of the world nonesense.
    • by Jane Q. Public (1010737) on Sunday March 16, 2008 @11:36PM (#22770018)
      Think about it. Right now, one of the major breadbaskets of the Unites States, the Palouse region, is in perfect shape weather-wise for a bumper crop of wheat this year. We do not exactly have a shortage. But overseas they might... AND the dollar is low...

      Sound to me like U.S. wheat farmers are going to clean up this year.

      Just send everything one way, okay, guys? We don't want that fungus over here!



      But since the apocalyptic scenario has been brought up: what a great illustration of the fact that we have WAY too much of our food crops being grown as huge tracts of monoculture, often all the same crop and all the same species. What a great target for famine-causing organisms.
      • what a great illustration of the fact that we have WAY too much of our food crops being grown as huge tracts of monoculture, often all the same crop and all the same species. What a great target for famine-causing organisms.

        While I generally agree with your sentiment, I was surprised to read (in this article [newscientist.com]) that:

        Black stem rust itself is nothing new. It has been a major blight on heat production since the rise of agriculture, and the Romans even prayed to a stem rust god, Robigus. It can reduce a field of ripening grain to a dead, tangled mass, and vast outbreaks egularly used to rip through wheat regions. The last to hit the North American breadbasket, in 1954, wiped out 40 per cent of the crop. In the cold war both the US and the Soviet Union stockpiled stem rust spores as a biological weapon.
        So... rust fungus has been less of a problem in recent years, when we've been less diverse. Quite interesting.

        (oh, and I now have a new favorite God - Robigus.)
        • by odoketa (1040340) on Monday March 17, 2008 @12:26AM (#22770238) Homepage
          According to the NPR interview I heard with some science-type person on this, the monoculture we've bred was resistant to rust, so you would expect to see numbers going down... until a version of the fungus able to overcome that resistance comes along. Which is what has happened here.

          I just finished a book on phylloxera [wikipedia.org], and I find it interesting to see some of the parallels. Apparently 100 years is not enough time to learn from mistakes....
          • by NotQuiteReal (608241) on Monday March 17, 2008 @12:58AM (#22770384) Journal
            Apparently 100 years is not enough time to learn from mistakes...

            100 years is too long. Hardly anyone lives that long, and nobody has time to read about all that has gone on before, and even if they did, they wouldn't be doing anything, they'd be reading about it. Nobody listens to people who just read about stuff, they're just a bunch of nerds.

            You need good old politics to get stuff done. We'll ignore the wheat blight and grow corn to burn in our cars, and when the wheat crop fails, maybe we'll remember we can eat corn instead!

            Then politicians can take credit for staving off the famine by encouraging corn farmers.

          • I just finished a book on phylloxera, and I find it interesting to see some of the parallels. Apparently 100 years is not enough time to learn from mistakes....
            Good book? Care to recommend (or not)?
            • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

              by odoketa (1040340)
              The book was:

              The Botanist and the Vintner: How Wine Was Saved for the World

              It was pretty good, a sort of murder mystery for grapevines. Lots of people in denial, until it's too late. A few scientists trying to figure out what's going on, and then formulate a response.

              It didn't change my life, but I'm a pretty big wine geek, and it was interesting from that perspective. Also from the perspective of the political situation in France in the latter half of the 1800s.
      • by owenc67202 (901889) on Monday March 17, 2008 @12:05AM (#22770140)
        > Sound to me like U.S. wheat farmers are going to clean up this year. Actually most US wheat farmers sold their crop for this year long ago. That's one of the reasons wheat prices are already through the roof. Most of the sales out there are people fighting over the small amount of wheat that is still available. Farmers saw $7 wheat prices and sold as fast as they could. Never did they imagine that wheat would go over $10.
        • Harvests here in Australia (one of the largest exporters) have been down by as much as 60% in recent years due to the extended drought in the SE of the country. IIRC there has only been one or two relatively good harvests in the past decade.
          • by timmarhy (659436)
            i'm from wheat country, and let me assure you most of that stems from farmers wanting government assistance. here we had farmers on both drought AND flood assistance. figure that one out.
        • That's one of the inherent evils of the commodity markets: "counting your chickens before they hatch".
      • by Kamokazi (1080091)
        So can we start charging $100 a bushel like they charge us $100 a barrel?
      • by Deagol (323173) on Monday March 17, 2008 @12:34PM (#22774282) Homepage
        The wheat (and other non corn farmers) are going to clean up for the next few years, until market forces tilt the scales back to a more normal situation.

        Firstly, the US national "wheat stores" (the supply of wheat the country has on-hand at any given time) is at its near lowest point since records began. I'll be damned if I can find the official source now, but I actually browsed a quarterly report from whatever organization that tracks this (USDA perhaps) and read this a few months back. This food storage site [survivalacres.com] (and blog) has been aware of the trends for a while, as his prices have gone through the roof.

        On the anecdotal side: 1) Having livestock, I've witnessed the prices of non-corn 50-pound feeds nearly double in the past 6 months -- all were about $7/bag, and last time I bought them, wheat, oats, & barley were $15. Corn even went from about $7 to $9 over the same time; 2) The prices of food-grade wheat have gone from about $10/bag to over $20 (witnessed both on the Wheat Montanna [wheatmontanna.com] site and a local Macey's store, which sells 50-pound bags of Walton Feed [waltonfeed.com] wheat; 3) While recently at a wine store, I witnessed a farmer talking about converting over to hops, because hop crops are being converted to corn for the ethanol subsidies.

        This, of course, is also a general trend of the prices of food (and everything else) going up to reflect higher fuel costs. We normally buy whole wheat and grind it fresh -- it's much healthier, and is normally much chepaer. Howeverm due to large mills buying advanced contracts at a set price, the prices of wheat flour haven't caught up with that of whole wheat yet. Right now, it's cheaper to buy 2 25-pound bags of flour than it is to buy a 50-pound sack of whole wheat berries, which is the first time I've witnessed this imbalance in the 10 years my family has been buying whole wheat. (These are typical retail prices -- price club prices may be different.)

        Oh, and I found this post [reliefmine.com] while trying to find my link to US wheat stores numbers. Not proof positive of a coming "crisis", but when the the topic of wheat prices starts popping up on mainstream sites, it's worth taking note of. It's quite conceivable that this year we will see a doubling of prices for all wheat-based staples (flour, bread, pasta, etc.) and products which use wheat products will follow shortly thereafter. Even those of us who don't buy processed, pre-made stuff will be feeling the pinch. I really feel sorry for those who buy Eggo Waffles and frozen garlic bread in a box.

    • Nobody (Score:3, Interesting)

      by jd (1658)
      Can tell you what to be afraid of, they can only tell you what they are afraid of. Personally, I favour the approach of knowing more about a subject before dismissing it, and I regard this new problem as potentially very significant. However, there is a huge difference between what is possible and what actually happens. H5N1 is a possible threat (and can therefore be prevented before it becomes actual). AIDS is an actual disaster and, no matter what is ever achieved, the best that can be done is preventing
    • i'm so sick of being told of what i need to be afraid of. no wonder the world is full of pill popping zombies, i just wish these people would fuck off with their end of the world nonesense.

      Crap, now I'm afraid of pill-popping zombies...

  • just eat it

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corn_smut [wikipedia.org]

    Considered a pest in most of the United States, smut feeds off the corn plant and decreases the yield. Usually smut-infected crops are destroyed. However, in Mexico corn smut is called huitlacoche (IPA: [witakote], sometimes spelled cuitlacoche), a Nahuatl word reportedly meaning raven's excrement [1]. It is considered a delicacy, even being preserved and sold for a higher price than corn. For culinary use, the galls are harvested while still immature -- fully mature galls are dry and almost entirely spore-filled. The immature galls, gathered two to three weeks after an ear of corn is infected, still retain moisture and, when cooked, have a flavor described as mushroom-like, sweet, savory, woody, and earthy. Flavor compounds include sotolon and vanillin, as well as the sugar glucose.


    uh... never mind

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ergot [wikipedia.org]

    Ergotism is the name for sometimes severe pathological syndromes affecting humans or animals that have ingested ergot alkaloid-containing plant material, such as ergot-contaminated grains. The common name for ergotism is "St. Anthony's fire", in reference to the symptoms, such as severe burning sensations in the limbs.[3] These are caused by effects of ergot alkaloids on the vascular system due to vasoconstriction of blood vessels, sometimes leading to gangrene and loss of limbs due to severely restricted blood circulation. The neurotropic activities of the ergot alkaloids may also cause hallucinations and attendant irrational behaviour, convulsions, and even death.[1][2] Other symptoms include strong uterine contractions, nausea, seizures, and unconsciousness. Historically, controlled doses of ergot were used to induce abortions and to stop maternal bleeding after childbirth. Ergot alkaloids are also used in products such as Cafergot (containing caffeine and ergotamine or ergoline) to treat migraine headaches. Simple ergot extract is no longer used as a pharmaceutical preparation.[citation needed] Monks of the order of St. Anthony the Great specialized in treating ergotism victims with balms containing tranquilizing and circulation-stimulating plant extracts; they were also skilled in amputations.[citation needed]
  • I think it's too soon to worry about a rust that only eats wheat. If you look here: www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/afcm/triticale.html You will see that there is a Wheat form that people have been using for a long time and with no problems. They might be complaining that beer production might go down!
  • Strains (Score:4, Interesting)

    by esocid (946821) on Sunday March 16, 2008 @11:38PM (#22770020) Journal
    I wish the article would have mentioned how related the African and Asian wheat strains were to European and American strains. Since US corn crops are about 85% genetically similar doesn't make the situation in the US good at all. If it does hit the US pretty hard we may be seeing wheat coming from Mexico most likely.
    • Re:Strains (Score:5, Funny)

      by CSMatt (1175471) on Sunday March 16, 2008 @11:50PM (#22770076)
      Great. Among everything else we now have to worry about illegal wheat crossing the border.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Fireshadow (632041)
      This is real scary. According to National Association of Wheat Growers, "The United State would also be highly vulnerable to Ug99, with recent assessments suggesting that more than 50% of hard winter wheat and more than 75% of hard spring wheat acreage are currently planted to varieties that are susceptible to Ug99". (I'd post the reference link, but the filter complained about the length!)
      According to this page [suite101.com], world wheat reserves are the lowest in 25 years. I would not trust trying to buy one's food
      • W. is pushing for corn to be used for fuel. So we are going to get a double whammy. Corn and wheat being taken off them food market. It would appear that living may get a LOT more expensive.
        • W is on his way out, and hopefully whoever replaces him will actually listen to his/her scientific advisors.
          • W is on his way out, and hopefully whoever replaces him will actually listen to his/her scientific advisors. It will be another year before the next president starts. This is not likely to be their top priority. Their top priority will most likely be Iraq, Deficits, and our economy. Sadly, all these things are tied together, and yet, it will take years to straighten it out. And even if congress stays soft dem, it is far more likely that they will fight with the pres. rather than work together.
    • Re:Strains (Score:5, Informative)

      by MAXOMENOS (9802) <maxomai AT gmail DOT com> on Monday March 17, 2008 @01:17AM (#22770462) Homepage
      My understanding is that the USDA has a plan to combat this fungus. This involves planting highly resistant wheat in the south during the winter while the northern regions get too cold for the fungus to survive. With no place to take hold in the south and a death zone in the north, the fungus should go away. (source [sciencedaily.com])
    • by longacre (1090157) *
      Only 85%? Aren't humans and earthworms like 90% similar?
      • by esocid (946821)
        That may be true, but I think you misunderstood. 90% of humans aren't genetic copies.
  • Oh, no! (Score:5, Funny)

    by techno-vampire (666512) on Sunday March 16, 2008 @11:41PM (#22770036) Homepage
    There's a fungus amongus!
  • This is bad (Score:5, Informative)

    by whitehatlurker (867714) on Sunday March 16, 2008 @11:41PM (#22770040) Journal
    The USDA reports [usda.gov] that the virus can infect wheat which has the (previously) most effective rust resistant genes.

    Work is being done [newscientist.com] to protect crops, but Norman Borlaug [wikipedia.org] says "This thing has immense potential for social and human destruction." Oh yes, and you can say goodbye to cheap white bread [coldclimategardening.com].

  • Meanwhile, national governments in the path of the fungus are telling folks that there is nothing to worry about.
    You heard them. Move along people, nothing to see here.
  • Hey, since when does a loaf of bread cost $15? Or a pack of ramen cost $4.99?

    or..

    "This is the FBI. You're under arrest for posessing ergot or ergot-derived chemicals!"
  • by jdb2 (800046)
    I have been waiting for this day since I was diagnosed with C(o)eliac Disease [wikipedia.org]
    Now everyone has to use rice flour! ;) (well, it feeds half the world anyway)

    jdb2
  • Why shouldn't governments run on the basis of faith lie when the truth is too much to bear?

    And I'm not just talking theocracies. What else would we expect to hear in the US, except yet another chorus after the catastrophe hits saying "No one could have anticipated [this catastrophe people had warned would happen would happen]"?

    Anyone else remember Katrina, 9/11/2001, the mortgage collapse, Iraq?
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Nimey (114278)
      I have it on good authority [wikipedia.org] that we could have avoided all of those if we, as a nation, would turn back to God and expel those nasty gays, pagans, and so forth.
  • There's a lot of money to be made in genetically modifying crops wether to make them resistant to drought, fungus, insects, increase yields, etc.

    Governments -not private industry- should join together and create a solution wether it is to truly isolate the crops (e.g. Mad Cow) which is really hard with wind and insects. The better solution would be to do joint research in combating the fungus and/or creating a genetic modification.

    The last thing we need is for private companies to be the first to create a "
    • by Ihlosi (895663)
      There's a lot of money to be made in genetically modifying crops wether to make them resistant to drought, fungus, insects, increase yields, etc.

      The most money is to be made in genetically modifying crops to be highly tolerant to the herbi-/fungi-/insecticide made by your company. Bonus points (money) for making any seeds of this strain unable to germinate. (You mention the one company that does this in your posting, why don't you mention what exactly these guys do ?)

      (And, sorry, but "resistant to drought"

  • This reminds me of the novel /Dust/ by Charles Pellegrino. See
    http://www.sfsite.com/05b/dust33.htm for a pretty good review.
    ISBN-10: 0380787423
    ISBN-13: 978-0380787425
    http://www.amazon.com/Dust-Charles-R-Pellegrino/dp/0380787423/
  • Gotta love it. Monsanto to the rescue!!!

    Actually, I hope they don't. One of the worst foods we humans have gotten hooked on has been processed wheat...and that's just about the only way we can buy it. In any case, there are plenty of substitutes... some things just as bad... a few are actually worse.
  • there was a point in the cyberpunk timeline that said most of the north american wheat crops were devastated by an unknown virus of some sort

    wish i could find an online copy of the timeline...

    still always trips me out when science fiction predicts//feeds wordward to these sort of things
  • Amaranth (Score:5, Interesting)

    by bitspotter (455598) on Monday March 17, 2008 @01:19AM (#22770468) Journal
    I hear buzz growing about amaranth [dailykos.com] as a grain contender. Better protein, restores soil nutrients, etc.
  • Oh right, the bees that pollinate corn are dying, too. What's plan C?
  • I wonder... what has become of
    - Africanized Bees
    - The bird flu
    - Anthrax
    - Foot-and-mouth disease
    - deadly, mutated flu from asia
    - the banana fungus that will kill all banana supply
    - deadly escalators
    - that truck full of explosives on his way to germany
    - shark attacks in holiday paradises
    - streets running red with blood
    - weapons of mass destruction

    I am so sick of being told, what will kill me within the next 2 months!
    Every year in summer there is another deadly threat approaching...
    I can't hear
    • Hmmm. Lets see.
      • Africanized Bees. Moving slowly northwards. Currently, these are very serious problem in Arizona, Nevada, CA, and Texas.
      • The bird flu. Another big issue. This one IS coming. The good news is that CDC may have developed a way to stop all flu. But make no mistake about it. It is very active in Asia, and it is just a matter of time before this takes off.
      • Anthrax. So far, just a scare.
      • Foot-and-mouth disease. It was never mentioned as being a monster issue. Just outbreaks that need to be taken
  • Um, isn't this more or less how the movie Red Dawn began?
  • do I have the unnerving feeling that RoundUp-ready wheat is resistant to this fungus?
  • Meanwhile, national governments in the path of the fungus are telling folks that there is nothing to worry about.
    Meanwhile the breadbaskets of the world with econo-military axes to grind are rubbing their hands in unabashed glee. Winning the bio-economic war without even having to launch a single missile! This must be a first. Oh dear! I forget the story about smallpox infected blankets.
  • Nothing better than a (patented) genetically homogeneous worldwide host to infect.
  • So, someone has been experimenting again and decided to try it in Africa (again)? ;)
  • http://www.globalrust.org/ [globalrust.org] For those who want to keep track of rust development. Also see http://www.plantcell.org/cgi/content/full/18/1/1 [plantcell.org] for some more technical details.
  • Well, I'm off to make a broth with some nice pearl barley. I'll throw in a few kernals of maize for colour, and I'll serve it with a nice hunk of rye bread. For desert, I think I'll have a nice oat flapjack.

    The wheat monoculture thing was never really my bag.

    HAL.

  • Don't tell Greenpeace! They'll declare these resistant hybrids as 'evil' and claim these 'frankenfoods' will destroy all humanity!

    Not like [agbioworld.org] they [whybiotech.com] haven't [ncpa.org] before....

    Apparentlybiottech == Montsanto under any circumstance.
  • Read the book.

I find you lack of faith in the forth dithturbing. - Darse ("Darth") Vader

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