Friday, May 09, 2008

Blight on Wheat... all we need!

We are aware of world food crises, but now it appears that a new (but historically recognised) infection is on its way to kill-off wheat-crops, and that is about all we need. A recent analysis predicts that by 2024, the world population will "peak" at 7.1 billion (from 6.7 billion now) and then decline to around 2.5 billion by 2100. This "new" infliction goes back to the Romans, and is called "black stem rust" because that's what it looks like, and it hit the North American breadbasket in 1954 - eradicating 40% of the nation's wheat crop - and during the cold-war between the US/West and the USSR, both sides of the argument stockpiled stem rust spores as a biological weapon against the other.

The Romans used to pray to a stem rust God, called Robigus, and the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Norman Borlaug told the New Scientist magazine recently that Ug99, which appeared in Kenya in 2002, is due for a reappearance in consequence of complacency - TB in humans is similarly blamed for its recent resurgence. As is the case with most research, a lack of funding is blamed, and yet when I see what the various research councils are spending their money on - matched against the backdrop of oil-depletion, and the energy-crunch, I do wonder if we have our priorities arse-about-face.

Borlaug came to fame fifty years ago, and at 93, he is focussing on the long-game. He commented that because travel has vastly increased during the past 40 years, there is the concomitant opportunity and likelihood that Ug99 spores might be accidentally spread around the world, rather than erupting in isolated pockets. This is true indeed of all kinds of infection, as one might envisage. He further suggests that the responsible genes might be located undetected in other grains and grasses, for example rice, which is facing a shortage and an accordingly elevated price, with detrimental consequences for half the world's population who depend on it as a staple food.

Borlaug concludes: "We have to rely on fungicides, wheat breeding (to secure invulnerable strains, temporarily at least) and luck!" Yes, we are going to need some of the latter, along with strategic planning to get through the Oil-Dearth Era.

Related Reading.
"Billions at risk from wheat super-blight." By Deborah Mackenzie.

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