Wheat stem rust has not been seen in the U.K. for nearly 60 years and now recent outbreaks have occurred that have many scientists wondering what has resurrected the disease. From what I understand, Over 80% of 57 wheat varieties tested in Britain are susceptible to the strain of stem rust that was discovered in an infected plant in Suffolk in 2013, the first time the disease has reappeared since 1955. It is believed that a lack of resistance in modern European varieties, changes in climate conditions and the increased presence of an alternative host, barberry have contributed to the recent outbreaks. It’s worth noting that efforts to conserve the barberry carpet moth, an endangered species, has led to the planting of barberry across the UK in the past twenty years. Interestingly, this same strain battered wheat crops in Ethiopia and caused smaller outbreaks in Sweden, Denmark and Germany in 2013. Stem rust can devastate wheat crops which feed nearly 20% of the world’s population. Keep in mind that stem rust disease was controlled for decades through the use of resistant wheat varieties bred in the 1950s by scientist Norman Borlaug and his colleagues and widespread adoption of those varieties sparked the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 70s. It’s worth noting that the late Nobel laureate Borlaug said that the greatest ally of the pathogen is our short memory. Meaning, we may have been lulled to sleep after we apparently had conquered the problem. According to Ravi Singh, a wheat scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, this disease mutates quickly to overcome resistance controlled by single genes. I’m told that the hope for achieving resistance to rust disease, the scientists will have to make wheat’s resistance genetically complex, combining multiple genes and resistance approaches. I suspect that with the advances in science, developing a genetically complex resistance is within reach. (Source: cimmyt.org, phys.org)
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