Virulent fungal wheat virus spreads to Iran putting other major producers at risk.
Among the emerging risks that the world is facing is the threat to food security. The World Economic Forum’s report, Global Risks 2008 reported that
“in 2007, prices for many staple foods reached record levels. The price of corn in late 2007 was 50% higher than 12 months previously. The price of wheat was double. Global food reserves are at their lowest in 25 years and, as a result, world food supply is vulnerable to an international crisis or natural disaster. “
One such disaster that may have dire consequences for many nations that are already struggling to feed their populations, is the news today that a new and virulent wheat fungus, previously found in East Africa and Yemen, has moved to major wheat growing areas in Iran. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations reported today that the fungus is capable of wreaking havoc to wheat production by destroying entire fields.
Countries east of Iran, like Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, all major wheat producers, are most threatened by the fungus and should be on high alert, FAO said.
In fact the FOA estimates that as much as 80 percent of all wheat varieties planted in Asia and Africa are susceptible to the wheat stem rust (Puccinia graminis). The spores of wheat rust are mostly carried by wind over long distances and across continents. This development comes at a time when inflation is hitting the price of food as countries divert land for crops to biofuels and emerging nations like China are using more grains for the production of meat. It has the potential to push a crisis that will hit the world’s poorest.
Shivaji Pandey, Director of FAO’s Plant Production and Protection Division was quoted as saying:
“The fungus is spreading rapidly and could seriously lower wheat production in countries at direct risk. Affected countries and the international community have to ensure that the spread of the disease gets under control in order to reduce the risk to countries that are already hit by high food prices.”
In late February the price of US wheat went up by 22 per cent, to nearly $27.00 a bushel while big exporter, Kazakhstan, said it was imposing export tariffs to keep supplies at home. The scarcity of wheat has come about because crops in Australia, Canada, China and Europe have seen damage from bad weather conditions, and all of this as the cost of seed and fertilizer is increasing and soil fertility is declining in some places. All these factors impinge on the world’s ability to meet the growth in demand.
The news of a new virulent fungal agent with the potential to wipe out wheat crops and in doing so add to the scarcity of supply and increase prices even further is really bad news. Control and surveillance procedures are even more important if the spread is to be contained. Lives in the poorest countries are being lost already due to the food crisis and this will certainly be another blow.