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Wheat rust has returned to the wheatfields of Iran.


The damaging wheat rust disease that hit Iran's wheat crop in 2007 was defeated in 2009 and 2010 by drought. But this year it is back again. And researchers fear explosive growth--but they can't be sure of anything because they say Iran is not providing the full information they need about what is happening inside Iran.

In a sense, it is like the nuclear issue; the Islamic Republic is declining to answer the world's questions about what is going on inside Iran.

New strains of wheat rust diseases that have devastated crops from North Africa to Central Asia were the topic of a scientists' meeting in Aleppo, Syria, last week trying to find solutions and the capacity to implement them. And Iran is central to their concerns.

The fungal disease known as wheat rust affects grains such as barley and rye in addition to wheat. Depending on the type, the rust can attack the stems, grains and leaves of the plants, causing significant losses in the crop yield. What makes the fungus so worrisome is the impact it can have on food security if it spreads further.

Wheat is a major crop in the Middle East. For many people, it comprises half their calorie intake and 20 percent of their protein.

Rust is a major threat to wheat production," said Mahmoud Solh, director general of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). "These epidemics increase the price of food and pose a real threat to rural livelihoods and regional food security."

Singling out Syria, which was one of the countries hit by the fungus, Hans Braun, director of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) near Mexico City, told Agence France Presse, "Looking at the political and social situation [in the Mideast], what they don't need is a food crisis."

With ICARDA's estimate that 80 percent to 90 percent of all global wheat types are susceptible to a rust-causing fungus, it is not surprising that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the United Kingdom have together awarded $40 million to fight wheat rust.

Two types of wheat rust have been plaguing the region in the past few years, and both have been found in Iran. Corroding the inside of the plant's stem, black rust or stem rust is currently being commonly caused by Ug99, a fungus named after its 1999 detection in Uganda. The other rust is known as stripe or yellow rust because of the narrow stripes it often leaves on the leaves of the wheat plant.

Ug99 can cause 70 percent damage or more in a field if it experiences ideal conditions. From 1999 to 2003, it quickly spread from Africa to Yemen, where like Kenya, wheat is grown year-round. Thus, the fungus never had to survive a "down time" and could thrive.

In 2007 it was found in Iran, a country with more than 6.95 million hectares (more than 17 million acres) of wheat growing areas. Even though Iran does not grow wheat all year, it does have many Barbary bushes, which provide an equitable space for the fungus to reproduce and survive through the cold winters of the north.

In the 1950s, the United States eradicated more than 99 percent of its Barbary bushes as one step in drastically curbing major outbreaks of stem rust. While Iran has not spoken of any such plans, there were no reported signs of the fungus in Iran in 2008-2009, possibly because of the droughts. Wheat rust thrives in wet climates. However, wheat rust has made a comeback this year in Iran.

Researchers are concerned that Ug99 will become permanently established in Iran--if it hasn't already--and that it will then spread via global wind currents to the rest of the world, starting with Asia. "The belief is that once Ug99 races are established in Iran, it's an easy hop over to the Central Asian 'stan' countries"--Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan- where "wheat is an important crop," says Gene Milus, University of Arkansas professor and wheat pathologist. Although less likely, the fungus could even reach North America in the next decade.

Iran, however, has not shared good information with researchers on just how established Ug99 has become in the country. In 2009, a new strain of stripe rust appeared, damaging crops in Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq, with some reports also including Lebanon, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Morocco, Ethiopia and Kenya.

Michael Baum, director of the biodiversity and integrated gene management program at ICARDA in Syria, believes there may have been a loss of 20-50 percent of Syria's wheat yield, for example. The country was particularly vulnerable because more than 75 percent of its wheat farms grow the same variety.

"If you cover more than 25 percent of the whole area with one variety, you are setting yourself up for disaster. You must have multiple varieties in case one of them breaks, and they must be of different genetic backgrounds," says Osman Abdalla, a senior bread wheat breeder at ICARDA.

In 2009, researchers at the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative were working on 60 new wheat varieties resistant to Ug99. This year, the International Wheat Stripe Rust Symposium in Aleppo gathered more than 100 scientists and policymakers from 31 countries on April 18-21 to do a more general overview of stripe rust.

"To combat the problem, farmers in these regions need to adopt new varieties of wheat that have durable resistance to both stem and stripe rust," said Ronnie Coffman, a professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and vice chairman of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative. Nevertheless, "All of these countries have under-invested in research and preparation for this kind of scenario."

Solh says it will take two to three years to replace more than half of the current breeds and only then moving on to replacing a larger scale. "So, you are talking about four to five years before you can really have full coverage," he noted.

Of course, that is only after the right resistant breed is found.

The first cross between breeds is just the beginning of an approximately 10-year process to develop a new variety, explains Michael Baum. "So the cross we make today is not for tomorrow, it is for the product after tomorrow. We have to do a certain degree of anticipatory breeding. You have to know what are the problems in the future."

"We need to convince the governments to show long-term commitment to research, breeding and pathology because a lot of these problems are homemade and there are a lot things you can do to evade these problems," he added.

Unfortunately, many of the countries in question have limited resources to be able to begin the process for solving the issue of wheat rust. "There is need for enhancing in-country capacity of the breeding, seed and extension systems to continuously ensure that new, highly productive and genetically diverse resistant varieties are available and accepted by farmers to meet the challenges of changing rust virulence," said Wafa El Khoury, coordinator of the Wheat Rust Disease Global Program at the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). "Coordination and timely information sharing among all the stakeholders--from surveillance and plant protection officers, to wheat breeders, seed system and extension agents, and farmers-is key."

ICARDA, which is among the fifteen centers supported by the Aleppo-based Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), wrote in a blog April 20, that "country preparedness for outbreaks of wheat rust involves such issues as the availability of resistant varieties that are known to and accepted by farmers, the availability of sufficient quality seeds of new varieties for farmers to use, and the availability, accessibility and affordability of effective fungicides and capacity of farmers to use them." The main problem for a lot of these countries will be getting enough of the resistant varieties to the fields and planted in time.
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Publication:Iran Times International (Washington, DC)
Geographic Code:7IRAN
Date:Apr 29, 2011
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