Why should you care about wheat rust?
Do you have a fondness for bagels, baguettes, beignets, or buns? They are all made of wheat flour, and wheat is under attack again by one of nature’s most persistent, crippling scourges.
The Economist in depth story on the renewed worldwide threat from wheat rust should be on everyone’s reading list.
It is sometimes called the “polio of agriculture”: a terrifying but almost forgotten disease. Wheat rust is not just back after a 50-year absence, but spreading in new and scary forms. In some ways it is worse than child-crippling polio, still lingering in parts of Nigeria.
It makes for a terrifying scenario in which vast wheat growing regions in the world, like the Punjab, South Africa, and Iran have already been attacked and seen wheat production plummet.
Luckily, the US, Russia, China, and India have escaped, but the threat is real and imminent, with new varieties of rust appearing and quickly spreading. Scientist are working to created wheat varieties with multiple genes that can help fight against wheat rust and stem rust, a related fungal disease.
But these new varieties trade resistance for lower yields, which is opposite to what was achieved by the great agronomist Norman Borlaug (see Norman Borlaug: Scourge of Hunger). Smaller harvests, and potentially, large areas where the wheat is destroyed, could lead to famine and misery for much of the world that depends on wheat.
Worst of all, farmers in earlier generations had a big incentive to get their hands on high-yielding seeds. Now, the vast majority have no experience of wheat rust. They may therefore see no reason for sowing rust-resistant seeds when they first appear—until the disease destroys their harvest. By then it will be too late.
Too late for us all.