AGRICULTURE: Disease Threatens Afghan Wheat Crop

  • by Danielle Kurtzleben (washington)
  • Thursday, July 30, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

The Ug99 fungus, so named for its identification in Uganda in 1999, is a strain of black stem rust, a fungus that kills plants by leeching water and nutrients from them.

Ug99 has devastated crops in Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Sudan, and has more recently traveled to the Middle East, where its presence has been confirmed in Yemen and Iran. Experts believe it is only a matter of time before the fungus threatens crops in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India, where wheat production is a major source of food and income for many.

Though stem rusts have endangered wheat crops for centuries, the Ug99 rust is an especially aggressive strain of stem rust. Ug99 can cause full crop loss, whereas other stem rusts have been known to merely decrease crop yields.

Dr. Mahmoud Solh is director general of the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), a Syria-based research center branch of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a Washington-headquartered worldwide network of agricultural research centres.

Solh told IPS that Ug99 is especially threatening not only because of its aggressiveness but also because of how easily it travels. 'The spores are so light, they are carried by the wind, so they travel miles and miles and miles,' he said.

This quickness surprised agronomists, said Solh: 'For example, after Sudan in 2006 and Yemen, it moved to Iran in 2007 when we were expecting it in 2009. It moved much quicker than we expected.'

Dr. Solh said that the 2007 discovery of Ug99 in Iran has intensified the urgency of combating Ug99, as Iran is located between two major wheat-producing regions.

As Solh told IPS, 'If you move east [from Iran], you reach countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, where you have 25 million hectares of wheat. And if you move west, you go to Egypt and then North Africa, and then to Europe.'

According to ICARDA, over 90 percent of the world's wheat varieties are susceptible to Ug99. Farmers in some countries have been keeping Ug99 at bay with the use of fungicides, but doing so is a costly and short-term fix. Eventually, nearly all of the world's wheat crops will have to be replaced by rust-resistant varieties.

ICARDA is part of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative, an organisation founded in 2005 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service, UNFAO, ICARDA, Cornell University, and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), another CGIAR research centre. The initiative works globally to combat all types of rusts that affect wheat production.

With the help of USAID, ICARDA has been focusing on four main steps toward Ug99 eradication in Afghanistan - disease surveillance, identifying genetic sources of resistance, incorporating those sources into the wheat population, and seed multiplication of Ug99-resistant wheat varieties.

Performing agricultural development in Afghanistan is especially difficult, as war has badly hurt the nation's agricultural capacity and infrastructure. For this reason, ICARDA researchers have been working with Afghanistan's Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock to help farmers and researchers to test, evaluate, and multiply stem-rust-resistant wheat varieties.

Combating Ug99 is of particular importance in Afghanistan because of the Afghan economy's heavy reliance on the agricultural sector, which accounts for nearly one-third of the country's GDP. Furthermore, 80 percent of Afghanistan's working-age males are farmers, nearly all of whom grow wheat for food or sale.

In addition, USAID estimates that over six million Afghanis – nearly one-fifth of the population – do not have enough food. In short, if Afghanistan's wheat crops were faced with Ug99, it could endanger food security and the bedrock of the country's economy.

The proliferation of Ug99 also has implications for Afghanistan's drug industry. USAID and U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan have been promoting wheat cultivation as part of a larger strategy to combat narcotics in Afghanistan. One of their newest efforts has involved paying farmers not to grow poppies and encouraging them to grow other crops, including wheat.

USAID credits agricultural development efforts with helping to decrease Afghan drug production. According to the 2009 U.N. World Drug Report, opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan decreased by 19 percent in 2008. If Ug99 reaches Afghanistan before its wheat crops are fully rust-resistant, some fear that it may turn farmers back from wheat to poppy cultivation.

Such a scenario would have implications for international security, as drug proceeds in Afghanistan in part fund the Taliban and insurgency in that country's current civil conflict.

Dr. Solh considers U.S. wheat promotion in Afghanistan commendable and necessary from a food security standpoint: 'It is very important for the U.S. military and the USAID support wheat production since it is a major staple crop that the Afghani consider a strategic crop for food security.'

However, Solh also cautioned against placing hopes for curbing illicit crop growth in wheat alone, saying that wheat monoculture is neither sustainable 'economically nor from the soil productivity viewpoint'.

Therefore, aside from the proliferation of Ug99-resistant wheat, said Solh, another strategy to both combat illicit crops and promote Afghan economic growth is to encourage the cultivation of indigenous, higher-value crops, like saffron and mint, as sources of income for farmers.

As Ug99 spreads and grows more virulent, organisations continue to work to mitigate its effects. ICARDA, USAID, and UNFAO have planned a September meeting at which they will discuss new steps to ensure Afghanistan food security in the face of Ug99. Among their chief goals is to replace 10 percent of Afghanistan's wheat with Ug99-resistant varieties.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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