A wheat-killing fungal disease, being called “agriculture’s polio”, is racing like the swine flu towards Asia from Africa, crippling food baskets in 7 countries. India, also at risk, has got a global breakthrough with its first line of defence -- 20 varieties that can fight an attack.
According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the Ug99 fungus is on a “wind-borne trip around the globe” and poses a “genuine risk” to global food security, including India’s, and could push millions into hunger.
Indian farm scientists have confirmed locating “genetic sources” that can potentially resist Ug99. These varieties, internationally endorsed, will allow a coalition of at-risk countries to fight the disease better.
“This is an internationally accepted breakthrough,” Swapan K. Dutta, head of crop sciences at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research told the Hindustan Times.
In 2008, India formally joined global efforts to fight Ug99, led by the NY-based Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI). That was a baby step.
Within two years of painstaking research, the Karnal-based Directorate of Wheat Research, led by its head, SS Singh, isolated genes that can fend off the fungus.
The fungus is a constantly-moving one, having been blown from Uganda to Sudan and Yemen, until it reached Iran last year. Scientists think Ug99’s detection in Iran endangers Pakistan and India.
Western scientists believe Punjab can't be safe for long unless solid defences are put up, but Singh said India was fully prepared and secure.
The 20 resistant wheat varieties are being grown along India’s borders as a shield, resembling a fence. They have also been offered to other affected countries under an agreement with BGRI for trails.
Stem rust forms cancerous sores on a wheat plant’s stem, therefore its name. It was thought to have been wiped out after Nobel winning agronomist Norman Borlaug, who died last year, developed a resistant variety. Not only did it survive in Africa’s Great Lakes, but it also mutated into the more deadly Ug99 variant.
Ug99 was named after the country and year it was first detected in: Uganda in 1999.