For a long time plant science research has been unfortunately under-funded and had less attention from the public. This had led to fewer people studying it, less tool development, less technology development, and unfortunately lost time and knowledge. Personally, I love plants and eat almost only plants. I grow them inside and outside of my house. Some of my best friends, as they say.... In fact, after an undergraduate degree in microbiology I went into a plant lab. I liked the work, but it was clear that wasn't where the funding was. So after that degree, I aimed at mammalian research for my PhD. Nevertheless, I have always been interested in a wide range of species, most of which I think are valuable in their own way on the planet--and deserve focus and funding.
Sometimes pathogens are hard to love--but may be the most crucial to understand. A particularly challenging foe could be ug99. I'll introduce you to this unfriendly little fungus that could be coming to some wheat near you.
ug99 is the nickname of a strain of the organism Puccinia graminis. You can have a look at its life cycle here. For years scientists have known about this little beast, as it used to be responsible for black rust:
Before the late 1950s, the fungus was notorious for causing black stem rust, one of the most devastating diseases of wheat. Every few years, outbreaks would lay waste to entire fields somewhere in the world, sometimes sweeping across great swaths of continents in a matter of months.
Salvation came with the development of wheat varieties that resisted the disease, which are widely credited with helping to usher in the green revolution in the 1960s.
Of course, in the arms race that is biology, this wasn't the end of the story. Always the pests will up their game to defeat the plant's resistance or the pesticides farmers use. This brings us to ug99. In Uganda in 1999, a new strain of rust was found, for which the plants from the 60s have no resistance.
How serious is this? A great article on ug99 from Wired describes it:
Red Menace: Stop the Ug99 Fungus Before Its Spores Bring Starvation
Indeed, 90 percent of the world’s wheat has little or no protection against the Ug99 race of P. graminis. If nothing is done to slow the pathogen, famines could soon become the norm — from the Red Sea to the Mongolian steppe — as Ug99 annihilates a crop that provides a third of our calories. China and India, the world’s biggest wheat consumers, will once again face the threat of mass starvation, especially among their rural poor. The situation will be particularly grim in Pakistan and Afghanistan, two nations that rely heavily on wheat for sustenance and are in no position to bear added woe. Their fragile governments may not be able to survive the onslaught of Ug99 and its attendant turmoil.
Now, before you get all bent out of shape about these plants--we are not talking about GMOs here. There are no wheat GMOs in commercial cultivation. These are conventional wheat varieties all over the world.
I recommend the Wired article for the whole story. It describes the history, the present, and looks at possible future outcomes. Part of the history describes the delights of pre-industrial organic agriculture:
P. graminis proved to be a prolific killer throughout the ensuing centuries, regularly tormenting both Old World and New. Certain death by starvation awaited European peasants whose crops were struck, while Mesoamerican Indians learned to fear the plague they called chahuistle. And the first English settlers in Massachusetts were aghast when rust wiped out their cereal crops in the 17th century, almost causing them to starve.
The new incarnations has already harmed many subsistence farmers, the article indicates. But it is also a moving target:
Ug99 isn’t just on the march. It’s mutating, too: It has developed the ability to overcome resistance genes that were being used to combat it. At least four variants of the pathogen have been discovered to date, and each has the ability to knock out resistance genes once thought to be worthy substitutes for Sr31.
Now here's the rub for some people: biotechnology is being used to study and combat this pathogen. That means using the tools and methods of biotechnology to study the pathogen, the wheat, and to catalog and identify new resistant strains (12,000 lines of US wheat have been screened). Numerous possible interventions are being considered: using genes from resistant rice; genes from barley may convey resistance; stacking several wheat genes with smaller effects together; and other interventions based on the pathogen's genes.
What are scientists doing? Using biotechnology to speed things up:
If such markers can be identified, breeding becomes an order of magnitude easier: Seedlings can be screened in the lab to make sure they carry the desired gene combo and only the best candidates sent to Kenya. As a result, Bariana estimates that minor-gene wheats possessing near-immunity to Ug99 could be ready for widespread planting in three to four years.
- Do you really think you understand what biotech means?
- Do you feel qualified to withhold biotech tools from scientists and farmers?
- Are you certain that returning to pre-industrial agriculture can avoid ug99 or other pathogens? Where do you get this confidence?
- Are you sure conventional breeding can move fast enough? How lucky do you feel?
The Guardian recently described it thus:
Combating stem rust: Uganda pest should give us food for thought
With 800 million chronically undernourished, anything that reduces the food supply has potential for tragedy
These genes must be identified, then spliced or bred into appropriate varieties and distributed to the blighted areas. All of which takes time, money, manpower and relentless scholarship....
So the new pathogen in Africa is a reminder that we need to do more than invest in aid budgets and crop science: we must learn much more about the intricate natural world around us. That means spending money on very basic research: at the grass roots, you might say.
Some people here use the the word "biotech" to mislead you. They are completely misrepresenting what it means in modern agriculture. Please become actually informed about what it is, what it means in full, and then decide if you really want to act to prevent people from using it. It really isn't about whether you'll head to the farmer's market on Saturday. It's much bigger than you.
Please don't let people with dog-whistles make the decisions for you about what scientists should be allowed to work on, or what we should fund because it contains the world "biotechnology". It may be they don't understand the issues, or it could be deliberate misrepresentation.
Disclaimer: I have no relationship with any component of "Big Ag" or any of the research or researchers or links in this article. I do not own any agricultural stocks. I am not earning anything for posting here, nor for driving traffic to any web site. And I don't want you to buy my book.