Wheat supply threatened because there is no funding for deadly wheat disease

Norman Byrd's picture

Keeping ahead of virulent strains of diseases target wheat, one of the world's basic staples, takes millions of dollars just for research -- but the alternative is starvation, deprivation, social and political unrest among the world's populations.

A new study from researchers at the University of Minnesota warns that global wheat supplies could be threatened, forcing hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people to endure wheat shortages, higher food costs, and subsequent food deprivations. The research indicates that if adequate funding for disease resistance research isn't maintained to keep abreast and ahead of a highly mutative stem disease that is currently plaguing Africa, new strains of the deadly fungal disease could very well interrupt wheat supplies and impact the affordability of food.

The study follows the highly mutant strain Ug99, a virulent form of stem rust discovered in Uganda in 1999, and notes that if it continues on its current path, it will impact wheat supplies in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Of course, this would pose a threat to food supplies in the affected regions. Although scientists have developed a few resistant forms of wheat, the stem rust quickly mutates, calling for constant study and innovation. This requires funding.

At present, there is $26 million being funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but the University of Minnesota study found that to keep ahead of the mutations, it will take an additional $51 million per year. The estimate was derived from calculating the economic losses of the 20th century diseases had they not been effectively stymied by research.

Phil Pardey, leader of the research team and a professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota, states: "Failing to increase and sustain investments in rust-resistance research is tantamount to accepting an increase in the risk of yield losses on one of the world's food staples. Spending on stem rust research has been inadequate for some time, and increased research investment must be sustained over the long haul if science is to keep on top of these ever-evolving crop diseases."

The last time the world's wheat stockpiles were lowered drastically, prices went up considerably, and most noticeably in poorer countries. The Ug99 stem rust had devastated crops and by 2008, the world's stockpiles had reached a 30-year low. This, of course, drove up the price of wheat on futures as well as commodities markets. Those higher prices, by extension, were passed along to the consumer. As more money bought less wheat on the bulk market, the shipments coming in could not meet the demands in many countries. Supplies depleted ever quicker, prices became even higher.

The ramifications of the last wheat shortage became known as the Arab Spring, where thousands of people gathering in major cities in north Africa and across the Middle East began protesting the prices of food. The protests would turn to riots, revolts, and rebellions, take on the burdens of social and political grievances. The tipping point seemed to occur in Tunisia, where protests became so insistent that the government was toppled in January 2011. Before it was over, a number of governments that had stood for decades had fallen in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen, and civil uprising occurred in Bahrain and Syria. (During that same period, protests, riots, and general unrest occurred in another dozen countries from northwest Africa to Iran and Oman.)

It is as yet uncertain what might occur if the world is faced with a drastic shortage in the stockpiles of wheat, one possibly worse than that faced in 2008, but history suggests that widespread unrest and political instability could be an end result. The University of Minnesota study estimated that $51 million per year might be necessary to forestall crushing shortages. The question then becomes dual: Will there be enough funding and will research be able to stay ahead of the mutative and deadly fungus strains?

(photo credit: User:H2O, Creative Commons)

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