Wheat may face new disease

School researchers have found an increase in a plant disease that threatens crops. nationwide

Nick Wicker

Common foods that contain wheat — like cereal, bread, pasta and even soy sauce — may be in trouble as a fatal pathogen continues to fan out in fields across the country. 
 
A report released by the University of Minnesota’s International Science and Technology Practice and Policy Center Wednesday found that stripe rust is endangering more of the world’s wheat supply than ever before. 
 
The crop accounts for 20 percent of the globe’s caloric and protein intake. 
 
In recent years, another wheat disease, stem rust, has received more attention. 
 
While it’s still a problem, stripe rust is a growing threat many are less aware of, said Jason Beddow, the study’s main author and an assistant professor in the University’s Department of Applied Economics.
 
“It’s attacking wheat in places it hasn’t before,” Beddow said.
 
The disease has affected crops in 27 states in the U.S., compared to 11 between 1960 and 1999, according to the study. 
 
Stripe rust is a fungal infection that stops wheat from taking in nutrients and eventually causes the crop to die, said Yuan Chai, graduate research assistant in the Department of Applied Economics and co-author of the research. 
 
He said the infection is one of three fungal infections along with pests and weeds that can lower wheat production.
 
While the study wasn’t able to determine the cause of the expansion of the fungus’ range, Chai said one possibility is that the disease — traditionally found in cooler, wetter climates — has adapted to a warming climate.
 
Among the other potential causes are that the rust has evolved to spread throughout wheat faster, he said. 
 
Beddow said the research group is less concerned with why the change happened and more concerned with finding ways to combat it. 
 
The report also calls for more funding for stripe rust research.
 
He said research funding is a problem, since donors and governments are more attracted to more temporary and attention-grabbing environmental threats.
 
Still, he said, additional funding is needed to study all three fungi that endanger wheat yields.  
 
Stripe rust in the U.S. affects states differently. It can reduce crop sizes by over 4 percent in extreme cases, but he said that figure can be deceptive.
 
“The global wheat yield is over [600] million metric tons,” Chai said. “Losing 4 percent is actually quite a huge impact.”
 
The report’s conclusions and impact will be discussed at next week’s International Wheat Conference, which will be held in Sydney, Australia, from Sept. 20-25, Beddow said.