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Ug99
March 1, 2010 8:21 PM   Subscribe

"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."

"Since it was discovered a dozen years ago, Ug99 has steadily crept north and east out of Uganda. Wind patterns could soon carry it to the Punjab region on the border of India and Pakistan — one of Asia’s most crucial breadbaskets. In the next few years, the pathogen could also travel through Iran to Afghanistan, as well as into Turkey."

For the Americans in the crowd: the USDA's official Ug99 website, along with its current action plan [PDF, 359.62 KB].
posted by SpringAquifer (36 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
03/01/2010

Dear Sirs,

The recent problem with Ug99 has come to my attention as I access the network uplink from my cyborg armor and transport unit, formerly a computer chair purchased at IKEA. I have wasted the past 3 years of my life perfecting how to be a dick with the flamethrower on Construct (that's a Halo 3 level, in case you have any noobs at the USDA) and I stand ready to help. A field of wheat does not intimidate me, unlike those celiac types who head for the fallout shelter when they see my first Hot Pocket of the day. I may require transportation assistance. Godspeed.

Sincerely,

BmHdSht99
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 8:32 PM on March 1, 2010 [9 favorites]


Mmmm-mmm-monocropping?
posted by Decimask at 8:37 PM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


In 2012, a microorganism appeared in the grain fields in Nebraska and Ukraine. The virus, called the Blight, destroyed the US and Russian grain crops, including most stored grain. It then spread through North and South America, leaving famine and disease in its wake. Only Australia, through strict quarantine, was spared.

Millions died of starvation. The decimation of the pharmaceutical industry resulted in the return of childhood diseases thought eradicated. Economies collapsed. Governments toppled. Nations invaded each other to capture the few remaining stores of food, as did cities within nations.


-- GURPS Autoduel, 2nd edition, page 6
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:07 PM on March 1, 2010 [5 favorites]


I heard the world is going to end in 2012, and I don't even play GURPS.
posted by Maximian at 9:22 PM on March 1, 2010


generally genetic engineering doesn't worry me quite as much as it worries many.
But i do worry about the incentives for destructive behavior that are created by allowing someone to own specific genotypes. if a company, perhaps monsanto, were to develop a strain of a crop that was resistant to a disease that devastated other strains of the same crop, such as a Ug99 resistant wheat. That there would be a terrible economic incentive for someone, even just a single shareholder to undermine the international cooperation that generally exists around controlling diseases like Ug99 by spreading spores.
posted by compound eye at 9:22 PM on March 1, 2010 [8 favorites]


Good thing I eat 3/2 of what I'm supposed to.
posted by thumbsdown at 9:22 PM on March 1, 2010 [4 favorites]


This is a really fascinating and meaty article, thanks for posting it. To Decimask's point, it's interesting to me how the initial development of the resistant gene helped lead to fewer varieties of wheat being grown (since everyone logically wanted the resistant ones), so that we now have less diverse and ultimately more vulnerable crops planted.

The article does point out that as bad as this is, it's been around since the Bronze Age and only in the past 50 years did we think we might've beaten it. I have a hard time believing that it will destroy civilization, though it could certainly cause more suffering than anyone wants to see.
posted by cali at 9:38 PM on March 1, 2010


If anyone feels like panicking though: it also affects barley. You can take my bread, but do not mess with my beer and whiskey.
posted by cali at 9:43 PM on March 1, 2010


question: Why not just grow the wheat that's resistant to it?
posted by empath at 9:48 PM on March 1, 2010


FPP should have been titled, "Rust Never Sleeps".
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:58 PM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Only liberals and socialist care about wheat. True patriots know that corn is the future of the free world. Nothing like cornbread instead of a bun around your hamburger!
posted by white_devil at 10:25 PM on March 1, 2010


Sounds like the right time to start bringing back landraces like Red Fife wheat and the practice of saving seeds.
posted by parudox at 10:28 PM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Only liberals and socialist care about wheat.

I don't know. I think even Teabaggers can get behind eradicating something that poses an existential threat to sandwiches.
posted by The Potate at 10:35 PM on March 1, 2010


time to bust out the quadrotriticale
posted by bottlebrushtree at 10:47 PM on March 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


time to bust out the quadrotriticale

You probably have alluded to one possible answer...hybrids. Triticale is a cross between wheat and rye. Rye does have some interesting resistances. In this area it is sometimes planted for it's residual soil fumigation qualities.
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 11:16 PM on March 1, 2010


Has Madagascar sealed its port yet?
posted by Justinian at 11:19 PM on March 1, 2010 [9 favorites]


The author of the Wired article also maintains a pretty interesting blog, found here. He's got several posts up with extended bits of information on the article and the research he did, including this one on weaponizing stem rust.
posted by hackwolf at 11:41 PM on March 1, 2010


question: Why not just grow the wheat that's resistant to it?

After several years of feverish work, scientists have identified a mere half-dozen genes that are immediately useful for protecting wheat from Ug99. Incorporating them into crops using conventional breeding techniques is a nine- to 12-year process that has only just begun. And that process will have to be repeated for each of the thousands of wheat varieties that is specially adapted to a particular region and climate.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:44 PM on March 1, 2010


Millions died of starvation. The decimation of the pharmaceutical industry resulted in the return of childhood diseases thought eradicated. Economies collapsed. Governments toppled. Nations invaded each other to capture the few remaining stores of food, as did cities within nations.

Maybe all those corn subsidies will finally pay off.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:49 PM on March 1, 2010


Apparently I'm living in a science fiction novel I read as a child. Am I old yet?
posted by flabdablet at 12:01 AM on March 2, 2010


"This is a really fascinating and meaty article"

Surely you mean wheaty
posted by Damienmce at 1:05 AM on March 2, 2010


"Cereal killer" ?
"Fine-grained analysis" ?
"Germ warfare" ?

Anything that leaves this many possibilities open for puns causes my brain to overload and shut down.
posted by 7segment at 4:49 AM on March 2, 2010


.
posted by jb at 5:36 AM on March 2, 2010


Rust has already showed up in Iran. If it makes it to India, the effects will be devastating. A staple crop succumbing to something like this will kill millons of people.

It's sad and it's serious, and I'm glad that there are serious and dedicated scientists on the case.

But as long as we emphasize industrial scale farming, and only base cultivar selections on yield, pathogens will always be able to race around the world's food supply whenever they gain the upper hand. Diversity is, and always has been, Nature's first defense.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 5:51 AM on March 2, 2010 [5 favorites]


so, if we switch to a diet rich in pigeon, raccoon, grey squirrel and possum, will we be ok?
posted by toodleydoodley at 6:41 AM on March 2, 2010


We need to speed up the cloned resurrection of Neanderthals. It's my theory they were tasty. Hopefully they'll be able to replace wheat.
posted by codswallop at 8:37 AM on March 2, 2010


I know that people are probably just joking to break up the tension, but this is freaking the hell out of me.

As Benny Andajetz says -- this will lead to mass starvation. In the first world, we'll notice that our bread costs a bit more, but we won't eat less. We'll just buy up what grain there is, at the higher prices, leaving nothing behind. We'll eat fine while others starve to death. During the vicious, killing famines of the late 19th century, the Punjab in India continued to export grain to Europe even as tens of millions there starved to death.

It's at moments like these that I understand medieval laws about letting the poor buy grain in the market first, and not exporting grain from a famine area.
posted by jb at 9:06 AM on March 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


So many foreseeable disasters coming all at once, and so little desire to mitigate them.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:47 AM on March 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


During the vicious, killing famines of the late 19th century, the Punjab in India continued to export grain to Europe even as tens of millions there starved to death.

And Ireland exported food to Britain during the famine of the 1840s.
posted by knapah at 11:59 AM on March 2, 2010


My brother's job supports a group fighting this stuff, so I'm having this weird bipolar reaction between "Oh how cool, that's the stuff Johnny is working on!" and "OH MY GOD WE'RE ALL GOING TO STARVE TO DEATH!!!!"
posted by jalexei at 12:57 PM on March 2, 2010


Why isn't the logical answer to this eating more potatoes and vegetables? Grain is a source of calories, but it certainly isn't the only one. 90% of our grain consumption is indirect through meat. Cutting meat out of our diets would solve the (potential) starvation. I love bread as much as the next guy, but I'm seriously not worried about starving to death over this.
posted by stoneweaver at 2:29 PM on March 2, 2010


Very nice post. I know people in that working group, and the irony for me is that the knowledge on how to breed for resistant wheat is being lost as more and more scientists are being taught genetic engineering. A dear friend was brought out of retirement to work on this project because there was simply no one else to send.
posted by acrasis at 4:16 PM on March 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


Why isn't the logical answer to this eating more potatoes and vegetables?

In the immortal words of Jeremy Clarkson: that's not gone well, has it?
posted by flabdablet at 6:24 PM on March 2, 2010


stoneweaver -- almost no one in the first world will starve. But in developing countries, the primary starches are a significant source of the basic calories of life. When there was a serious rice shortage a few years ago, the only effect in the US was a slight increase in prices and a limit on how much rice you could buy at the Cosco. But people in Haiti were eating clay to fill their stomachs because they couldn't afford to buy any rice, which was their basic source of calories.

Actually, I'm wrong -- there are people in the first world who may starve if bread becomes more expensive. It is one of the most basic foods -- when you are on welfare, sometimes what you have is basically bread and cheese and milk.
posted by jb at 7:02 PM on March 2, 2010


If a wheat famine helps drive down the price of sorghum beer and tapioca bread, bring it on.
posted by unmake at 8:31 PM on March 2, 2010


jb - of course you're right. Sometimes I live in a fantasy land where humanity actually comes together and fixes problems. While it's a much better place, it's also almost completely fictitious. In the real world, we wouldn't move to use different crops to prevent mass starvation in third world countries and greater food insecurity in first world ones. Sigh. Thanks for calling me on my too rosy future outlook.
posted by stoneweaver at 9:46 AM on March 3, 2010


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