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Urgent call for global fight against wheat killer

Major wheat producing countries agree on roadmap to battle virulent fungus

Photo: ©FAO/Wafaa El Khoury
Ug99 causes heavy damage to wheat crops and is a major threat to food security.

12 November 2008, Rome/New Delhi - Representatives of major wheat producing countries have called for urgent coordinated action to prevent and control the wheat stem rust disease strain Ug99, FAO said today. The fungus is capable of causing heavy damage to wheat crops and is a major threat to food security.

In a declaration adopted by the International Conference on Wheat Stem Rust Ug99 - A Threat to Food Security in New Delhi (6-8 November 2008), countries pledged to strongly support prevention and control of the wheat stem rust as a matter of national policy and international cooperation.

Affected countries and countries at risk should develop contingency plans to prevent rust epidemics that could result in devastating yield losses. Countries should share surveillance information and a global early warning system should be immediately established.

Plant breeding research should be intensified and international cooperation enhanced to develop new Ug99 resistant varieties. Quality seeds of rust resistant wheat varieties should be multiplied nationally and distributed to needy farming communities.

Over 130 participants from ministries of agriculture of 31 countries, senior policy makers, researchers, seed producers and plant production experts attended the meeting, jointly organized by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, the Government of India, FAO and its Borlaug Global Rust Initiative partners.

Responding to the threat

"We will continue supporting countries in building national capacities for research, extension, plant protection and seed production and get the support of the international community for achieving our common goals in responding to the wheat rust global threat and improving livelihoods through enhanced food security," said Modibo Traore, FAO Assistant Director-General, Agriculture and Consumer Protection Department.

A new virulent strain of the wheat stem rust disease, called Ug99 after its discovery in Uganda in 1999, has spread from East Africa to Yemen, Sudan and in late 2007 to Iran. Currently there is no evidence that the fungus has spread to any other country. A recent field survey, funded by Cornell University in the US, showed that Ug99 is not present in India, Pakistan, Egypt and China.

It is estimated that as much as 80 percent of all wheat varieties planted in Asia and Africa are susceptible to the new strain. The spores of wheat rust are mostly carried by wind over long distances and across continents.

Supporting countries

FAO has recently launched its Wheat Rust Disease Global Programme that supports 29 countries in East and North Africa, the Near East and Central and South Asia, that are either affected or at risk of the disease and that account for 37 percent of global wheat production. FAO supports countries in emergency prevention, contingency planning, the release of improved varieties, seed multiplication and the training of farmers.

The New Delhi meeting called upon the international community, donors and international organizations to increase assistance to national and global initiatives to combat the disease. Ug99 campaigns should involve the FAO Wheat Rust Disease Global Programme and the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative.