Lack of attention has made stripe rust a major threat to the world’s wheat

Stripe Rust, photo by Thomas Lumpkin (CIMMYT)

Inconsistent funding for research into the pests and diseases that threaten key crops leaves global food supplies vulnerable, according to a University of Minnesota-led report published in the journal Nature Plants.

For example, while recent attention has focused on the deadly stem rust disease Ug99, the study led by U-Minnesota Applied Economist Jason Beddow shows that a potentially greater threat to the world’s wheat may come from stripe rust. Stripe rust is a disease that was once a problem limited to cooler, wetter regions, but that has more recently been moving into warmer, drier regions.  Prior to 2000, stripe rust outbreaks were reported in just 11 of the 48 contiguous United States. Since 2000, it has been reported in 26 states. The report further shows that stripe rust now threatens as much as 88 percent of the world’s wheat.

“Keeping up with ever-changing agricultural pests and diseases requires consistent attention and proactive research strategies,” Beddow says. “Waiting for new threats to emerge to start up the research and development pipelines could be a costly gamble.”

Research that helps create high-yielding, disease- and pest-resistant agricultural crops pays off by increasing what the paper’s authors refer to as “biological capital.” Beddow and his co-authors note that the changes in where stripe rust occurs have caused this biological capital to depreciate, and that this depreciation has been exacerbated by inconsistent funding for research into the disease.

The report was discussed at the 2015 International Wheat Congress in Sydney, Australia, a gathering of the world’s top wheat scientists. The meetings addressed the growing need for more food around the world as well as threats to the world’s wheat crop, which provides about 20 percent of calories and protein to the global human diet.

In addition to Beddow, the paper’s co-authors include collaborators from the U’s International Science and Technology Practice and Policy (InSTePP) Center and Stakman-Borlaug Center for Sustainable Plant Health; the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT); the University of Sydney; the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) and the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries. 

Photo by Thomas Lumpkin (CIMMYT).