Saving the world a grain at a time

Researchers at the Cereal Disease Laboratory are saving wheat crop from a deadly disease.
By
  • Ashley Bray
March 31, 2011

Many students have felt like they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders at some point during their college careers. While the road to graduation may be overwhelming at times, Being a student is much easier than being a researcher at the Cereal Disease Laboratory on the St. Paul campus.
Why? As students, we worry about getting decent grades. CDL director Martin Carson and his researchers and colleagues have to worry about saving the world’s food supply. Seriously.
To be more specific, it’s the world’s wheat supply that is under attack. The enemy is a disease called Ug99. It’s threatening to destroy a crucial portion of the wheat crop: up to 80 percent globally, according to the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.
Ug99 is an airborne disease, which means it has the potential to spread very quickly by means of spores. When it lands on the stem of the wheat plant, a pod erupts within 10 days, sending “literally thousands of spores” into the air, which then attach themselves to stems and burrow inside the plant, Carson said. From there, Ug99 wastes the nutrients needed for the plant to survive, severely damaging and often killing the plant.
According to experts in CDL, the problem is most severe in East African countries. Ug99 has been known in Ethiopia alone to take out anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of the annual wheat crop, said Carson, and it’s spreading fast.
“It’s as far north as Iran and as far south as South Africa, and it will keep moving,” Ronnie Coffman, vice chairman of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative told me in an interview last October.
I conducted a sizeable amount of research on the disease last October for a story published by the Minnesota Daily. Every person I spoke with stressed that if the researchers at CDL fail to find a Ug99 resistant strain of wheat, the results will be calamitous.
Jane DeMarchi, director of government affairs for research and technology with the National Association of Wheat Growers, called the potential damage “incalculable.”
Coffman labeled it “an unpredictable disaster.”
In October, Carson said, “It could be devastating.” As of this Tuesday, he told me that researchers are still very worried, and a spokesperson from NAWG said the situation is still as dire as it was when we first spoke.
As if the threat of losing more than half the world’s wheat supply isn’t unnerving enough, add the recent waves of unrest plaguing areas in the Middle East and across North Africa. Now we are looking at the price of bread rising, directly related to the diminishing wheat supply, which has the potential to cause food riots, Carson pointed out.
Food riots on top of political riots? Sounds like a huge mess of violence and suffering to me.
Of all the things I have learned over the past few months about this subject, there are two things in particular that just amaze me. First of all, the responsibility of putting an end to this epidemic rests on the shoulders of Carson and his colleagues. Experts outside of CDL emphasized how critical the work being done there is for the entire world. DeMarchi pointed out that “the whole world is very reliant right now on the CDL.”
While Carson was humble about the entire situation, even he admitted that the most groundbreaking work on stem rust is being done in St. Paul. That is a heck of a big burden.
Second, I am concerned, if not shocked, about the lack of mainstream media coverage on this issue. Ug99 has been well covered in agricultural journals and the like. Still, I find it troubling that I haven’t heard Brian Williams talking about this on the Nightly News.
If you’re interested in learning more about this issue, a simple Google search for Ug99 will turn up a number of results. It really is a fascinating issue, and if nothing else, you can feel better about handling your own problems knowing that saving the world is up to researchers right down the street.

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