Wheat Rust Fungus Spreads in Africa

Posted: April 26th, 2008 by: h2

As if the recent increases in basic food commodities globally wasn’t enough, now the dreaded new Wheat Fungus strains are devastating Africa’s wheat crops:

On top of record-breaking rice prices and corn through the roof on ethanol demand, wheat is now rusting in the fields across Africa.

Officials fear near total crop losses, and the fungus, known as Ug99, is spreading.

Wheat prices have been soaring this week on top of already high prices, and futures contracts spiked, too, on panic buying.

Experts fear the cost of bread could soon follow the path of rice, the price of which has triggered riots in some countries and prompted countries to cut off exports.
David Kotok, chairman and chief investment officer of Cumberland Advisors, said the deadly fungus, Puccinia graminis, is now spreading through some areas of the globe where “crop losses are expected to reach 100 percent.”

Losses in Africa are already at 70 percent of the crop, Kotok said.

“The economic losses expected from this fungus are now in the many billions and growing. Worse, there is an intensifying fear of exacerbated food shortages in poor and emerging countries of the world,” Kotok told investors in a research note.

“The ramifications are serious. Food rioting continues to expand around the world. We saw the most recent in Johannesburg.

“So far this unrest has been directed at rising prices. Actual shortages are still to come.”

They didn’t say the words, but I have to suspect that, like California’s bark beetle problem, this is indirectly related to global warming, rising mean temperatures providing new flash points for problems to come from.

What’s even more disturbing is the report that Bush has cut funding for wheat rust research.

I can’t pretend to be surprised by this, but it is somewhat eery to see just how consistently Bush and his group do exactly the worst thing, time after time, then never are willing to accept any responsibility for their horrible decisions.

The looming catastrophe can be avoided if the world’s wheat scientists pull together to develop a new generation of stem-rust-resistant varieties of wheat. But scientists must quickly turn their attention to replacing almost all of the commercial wheat grown in the world today. This will require a commitment from many nations, especially the United States, which has lately neglected its role as a leader in agricultural science.
In the last decade, global wheat production has not kept pace with rising population, or the increasing per capita demand for wheat products in newly industrializing countries. At the same time, international support for wheat research has declined significantly. And as a consequence, in 2007-08, world wheat stocks (as a percentage of demand) dropped to their lowest level since 1947-48. And prices have steadily climbed to the highest level in 25 years.

The new strains of stem rust, called Ug99 because they were discovered in Uganda in 1999, are much more dangerous than those that, 50 years ago, destroyed as much as 20 percent of the American wheat crop. Today’s lush, high-yielding wheat fields on vast irrigated tracts are ideal environments for the fungus to multiply, so the potential for crop loss is greater than ever.
The Bush administration was initially quick to grasp Ug99’s threat to American wheat production. In 2005, Mike Johanns, then secretary of agriculture, instructed the federal agriculture research service to take the lead in developing an international strategy to deal with stem rust. In 2006, the Agency for International Development mobilized emergency financing to help African and Asian countries accelerate needed wheat research.

But more recently, the administration has begun reversing direction. The State Department is recommending ending American support for the international agricultural research centers that helped start the Green Revolution, including all money for wheat research. And significant financial cuts have been proposed for important research centers, including the Department of Agriculture’s essential rust research laboratory in St. Paul.

This shocking short-sightedness goes against the interests not only of American wheat farmers and consumers but of all humanity. It is tantamount to the United States abandoning its pledge to help halve world hunger by 2015.

If millions of small-scale farmers see their wheat crops wiped out for want of new disease-resistant varieties, the problem will not be confined to any one country. Rust spores move long distances in the jet streams and know no political boundaries. Widespread failures in global wheat production will push the prices of all foods higher, causing new misery for the world’s poor.

Ug99 could reduce world wheat production by 60 million tons. But a global crop failure of this magnitude can be avoided. Before it is too late, America must rebuild, not destroy, the collaborative systems of international agricultural research that were so effective in starting the Green Revolution.
Norman E. Borlaug (recipient Nobel Peace Prize, 1970), NY Times, April 26, 2008

I want to be clear here, there’s two things going on in this story: first is the assumption that more and better biotechnologies will let populations maintain themselves, and even grow. This premise is becoming increasingly suspect in my opinion.

Second, however, is the consistent policy of the Bush administration to systematically cut and slash and destroy the US government’s ability to function. And in the process, this group is devastating the ability of the US to speak to the rest of the world with any type of moral authority at all. In other words, by cutting this type of relatively cheap research and aid (and it’s all relatively cheap when you compare such programs to the monthly costs of the Iraq war, and the amount of money being funneled to mercenary corporations like Blackwater), Bush and his group are devastating ALL the good will the USA gained over the last century, piece by piece.

In the process, they make it increasingly easy for the so called ‘terrorists’ to recruite and grow their organizations. Why? Very simple, with every little cut, every misdirected attack on the scientific community, every attempt to undercut the role of the UN, the USA loses a little bit more prestige, and makes it a little bit easier to paint us as the Great Satan.

This is not how you construct a successful foreign policy. As Zbigniew Brezinski (national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter) said recently:

Nor do the costs of this fiasco end there. The war has inflamed anti-American passions in the Middle East and South Asia while fragmenting Iraqi society and increasing the influence of Iran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent visit to Baghdad offers ample testimony that even the U.S.-installed government in Iraq is becoming susceptible to Iranian blandishments.
Zbigniew Brezinski, Washington Post, 30 March 2008

So what finer way to remind the rest of the world that you really do not in fact care about anything at all than to do things like cut funding of wheat rust research?

It’s almost as if Bush and company feel driven to do as much damage as they humanly can before they leave office. On any level, their policies have been total failures, even if you just are concerned with raw, unadorned projection of basic military power. That’s what is so utterly astounding about the current administration’s consistent and almost willful attempt to fail, to make things worse. It’s almost as if they really believe these are the end times, and that their role is to hurry things along so they can reach the rapture asap.

But there’s no way most of those people believe anything of the sort, they are just power hungry, ruthless, authoritarian personalities who I doubt actually believe anything at all.

Postscript: Don’t make the mistake of thinking any of these guys are saints though, take a look at the right column and analysis of US geopolitics, with more discussion of Brezinski’s larger views.

As Robert Reich pointed out over and over in his recent writings, both Republicans and Democrats are the problem, just as Ralph Nader has now been saying for years. And I think that’s true, I don’t see genuine change coming out of either party, though the ruthless abandon of any principles at all by the current Bush group is pretty disheartening if you are trying to get any kind of optimism going about where the US can go in the coming years.

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