Combating wheat stripe rust essential for region’s food security

Published online 30 June 2014

Climate change is expected to increase the spread and severity of rust diseases, further threatening food security. To combat stripe rust, greater investments in research and regional coordination are essential.

Mahmoud Solh

Wheat stripe rust destroyed 40% of wheat crops in West Asia in 2010
Wheat stripe rust destroyed 40% of wheat crops in West Asia in 2010
Virulent strains of crop disease are expected to become a significant constraint on regional food production in the near future, especially wheat stripe rust (yellow rust). 

Already, the global impacts of climate change, such as prolonged drought, environmental degradation, and increasingly uncertain rainfall, are taking their toll. At its April meeting, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), suggested that more effective management of crop disease could ease the destructive effects of climate change and improve global food security. 

One of the most aggressive crop diseases to blight agriculture in the Middle East is stripe rust, a fungal disease that attacks wheat early in the growing season, weakening crops and causing them to become stunted. In 2010, a stripe rust epidemic caused significant loss of crops in Egypt, Morocco, Yemen, Lebanon, Algeria, Syria and Iraq. The West Asia region had recorded crop losses of up to 40%.

Due to its ability to adapt to conditions caused by more variable rainfall, bouts of the disease are expected to become more widespread and to strike more frequently. In a region where wheat provides some 40% of calorific intake and 20% of protein, another rust epidemic could be disastrous for regional food and nutritional security. Given the Middle East’s dependence on expensive wheat imports, a repeat of the 2010 crisis would also expose the region to the vagaries of global commodity markets, risking yet another food crisis — especially in yellow rust hotspots like Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, and Yemen. 

The outlook has been made bleaker by the emergence in recent years of two virulent and highly aggressive strains of stripe rust, which have nullified a key resistance gene broadly used in breeding wheat varieties. These strains have prompted a renewed commitment to tackling this global threat. 

At the International Wheat Stripe Rust Symposium, held in April in Izmir, Turkey, a coalition of national and international partners agreed on a global ‘action plan’ to improve national resilience of wheat producers worldwide. The partnerships included the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), and national research centres in rust-affected countries that ICARDA helps to fight the disease. 

ICARDA and CGIAR will continue to provide scientific expertise to governments of susceptible countries, but, a new scheme, called the Global Stripe Rust Initiative, offers a ‘toolkit’ to help countries develop action plans to fight stripe rust (including surveillance, planning and awareness, building capacity, and crop research). ICARDA will also co-ordinate stripe-related research, bring policymakers and scientists together at meetings and conferences to discuss effective strategies, and help their partners manage fast-track crop science and seed delivery systems, and breed rust-resistant varieties of wheat. Scientists in plant breeding programs will be trained to improve efficiency and effectiveness.

At the core of today’s problem is a lack of coordinated investment to target stripe rust as a global threat.

The newly created Regional Cereal Rust Research Center – a partnership between the Turkish government and ICARDA set up in Izmir to act as a science hub for stripe rust-resistance – will monitor rust outbreaks, directly advising national breeding programmes to improve cohesion between scientists working on them.

The centre is currently screening some 16,000 wheat types sent from all over the world in trials to test rust resistance and susceptibility of varieties. Its biosafety facility, currently under construction, will be fully operational in 2015.

The Global Stripe Rust Initiative should provide new processes that make crop research and variety development more efficient; early-warning systems that utilize the latest geo-informatic technologies; and fast-track crop research and national seed distribution initiatives, such as a research partnership in Ethiopia that distributed seeds to more than 13,200 farmers across 400,000 hectares in the wake of the 2010 stripe rust epidemic.

But, progress in addressing stripe rust remains too slow, particularly in low-income countries. An area where significant improvements are needed is countries’ and researchers’ ability to translate research knowledge into action.

Successes need to be tested, validated, scaled up and extended across the world’s wheat-producing regions. Science needs to be translated more rapidly, and learning needs to be communicated across countries and regions more effectively.  Improvements in the dissemination of scientific information, policies and practices, will have a direct benefit on millions of people living in dry areas who remain vulnerable to stripe rust epidemics. 

At the core of today’s problem is a lack of coordinated investment to target stripe rust as a global threat. The main wheat-growing areas affected by stripe rust are in low-income, under-resourced countries in the region where governments do not prioritise the problem. This needs to change.  

International institutions, fund organizations, and national programmes must be encouraged to strengthen seed distribution networks, and engage farmers and other stakeholders. Governments need to cooperate more fully to effectively monitor, track, and combat the spread of wheat rust diseases.

If we do not act now we risk consigning the Middle East to increasing food insecurity and economic hardship. It’s a region that already has its fair share of both.

Mahmoud Solh is director general of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), an international research for development organization and a member of the CGIAR Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers.