1 - We are unsustainably overpopulated and eating well
into how our genetic imperative drives us to 'live as
long as possible'.
2 - Overpopulation has brought us in such unnecessary proximity with each other
as to both facilitate the spread of such 'pejoratives' and make them more
difficult to contain and resolve in addition -'swine flu' anyone?
3 - Free-enterprise capitalism greatly exacerbates such as the above: Democracy
is not 'the best form of government'.
It is only a matter of time before all the above become
June 14, 2009 Los Angeles Times
A 'time bomb' for world wheat crop
The Ug99 fungus, called stem rust, could wipe out more than 80% of the world's
wheat as it spreads from Africa, scientists fear. The race is on to breed
resistant plants before it reaches the U.S.
By Karen Kaplan
The spores arrived from Kenya on dried, infected leaves ensconced in layers of
Working inside a bio-secure greenhouse outfitted with motion
detectors and surveillance cameras, government scientists at the Cereal Disease
Laboratory in St. Paul, Minn., suspended the fungal spores in a light mineral
oil and sprayed them onto thousands of healthy wheat plants. After two weeks,
the stalks were covered with deadly reddish blisters characteristic of the
scourge known as Ug99.
Nearly all the plants were goners.
Crop scientists fear the Ug99 fungus could wipe out more than
80% of worldwide wheat crops as it spreads from eastern Africa. It has already
jumped the Red Sea and traveled as far as Iran. Experts say it is poised to
enter the breadbasket of northern India and Pakistan, and the wind will
inevitably carry it to Russia, China and even North America -- if it doesn't
hitch a ride with people first.
Wheat stem rust -Katharine Kimball / For The Times
GENETIC DEFENSE - Oregon State scientist Mary Verhoeven is among those
working to develop wheat varieties resistant to a strain of “stem rust” that a
colleague calls “a time bomb.”
"It's a time bomb," said Jim Peterson, a professor of wheat
breeding and genetics at Oregon State University in Corvallis. "It moves in the
air, it can move in clothing on an airplane. We know it's going to be here.
It's a matter of how long it's going to take."
Though most Americans have never heard of it, Ug99 -- a type
of fungus called stem rust because it produces reddish-brown flakes on plant
stalks -- is the No. 1 threat to the world's most widely grown crop.
The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in
Mexico estimates that 19% of the world's wheat, which provides food for 1
billion people in Asia and Africa, is in imminent danger. American plant
breeders say $10 billion worth of wheat would be destroyed if the fungus
suddenly made its way to U.S. fields.
Fear that the fungus will cause widespread damage has caused
short-term price spikes on world wheat markets. Famine has been averted thus
far, but experts say it's only a matter of time.
"A significant humanitarian crisis is inevitable," said Rick
Ward, the coordinator of the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project at
Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
The solution is to develop new wheat varieties that are
immune to Ug99. That's much easier said than done.
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.
"All the seed needs to change in the next few years," said
Ronnie Coffman, a plant breeder who heads the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat
project. "It's really an enormous undertaking."
Farmers have been battling stem rust for as long as they have
grown wheat. The fungus' ancestors infected wild grasses for millions of years
before people began cultivating them for food, said Jorge Dubcovsky, professor
of genetics and plant breeding at UC Davis.
"The pathogen keeps mutating and evolving," he said. "It's
one of our biblical pests. This is not a small enemy."
When a spore lands on a green wheat plant, it forms a pustule
that invades the outer layers of the stalk. The pustule hijacks the plant's
water and nutrients and diverts them to produce new rust spores instead of
grain. Within two weeks of an initial attack, there can be millions of pustules
in a 2.5-acre patch of land.
Wheat plants that can recognize a specific chemical produced
by stem rust can mount a defense against the fungus. But the rust is able to
mutate, evade the plant's immune system and resume its spread.
Stem rust destroyed more than 20% of U.S. wheat crops several
times between 1917 and 1935, and losses reached nearly 9% twice in the 1950s.
The last major outbreak, in 1962, destroyed 5.2% of the U.S. crop, according to
Peterson, who chairs the National Wheat Improvement Committee.
The fungus was kept at bay for years by breeders who slowly
and methodically incorporated different combinations of six major stem rust
resistance genes into various varieties of wheat. The breeders thought it
unlikely that the rust could overcome clusters of those genes at the same
After several outbreak-free decades, it seemed that stem rust
had been defeated for good. Scientists switched to other topics, and the hunt
for new resistance genes practically slowed to a crawl.
A new strain of stem rust was identified on a wheat farm in
Uganda in 1999.
"It didn't draw a lot of attention, frankly," said Marty
Carson, research leader at the Cereal Disease Laboratory, part of the U.S.
Department of Agriculture. "There's very little wheat grown in Uganda."
East Africa is a natural hot spot for stem rust. Weather
conditions allow farmers to grow wheat year-round, so rust spores can always
find a susceptible host. Some of the wheat is grown as high as 7,000 feet above
sea level, where intense solar radiation helps the fungus mutate.
The highlands are also home to barberry bushes, the only
plant on which stem rust is known to reproduce through sexual recombination.
That genetic shuffling provides a golden opportunity for the fungus to evolve
into a deadly strain.
Within a few years, Ug99 -- named for the country and year it
was identified -- had devastated farms in neighboring Kenya, where much of the
wheat is grown on large-scale farms that have so far been able to absorb the
blow. Then it moved north to Ethiopia, Sudan and Yemen, putting more small
farms at risk. Those that can afford it are trying to make do with fungicides,
but that's too cumbersome and expensive to be a long-term solution, Ward
To make matters worse, the fungus is becoming more virulent
as it spreads. Scientists discovered a Ug99 variant in 2006 that can defeat
Sr24, a resistance gene that protects Great Plains wheat.
Last year, another variant was found with immunity to Sr36, a
gene that safeguards Eastern wheat.
Should those variants make their way to U.S. fields any time
soon, scientists would be hard-pressed to protect American wheat crops.
A laborious task
Now the pressure is on to develop new wheat varieties that
are impervious to Ug99. Hundreds of varieties will need to be upgraded in the
"You can't just breed it into one or two major varieties and
expect to solve the problem," Peterson said. "You have to reinvent this wheel
at almost a local level."
The first step is to identify Ug99 resistance genes by
finding wheat plants that can withstand the deadly fungus.
Roughly 16,000 wheat varieties and other plants have been
tested in the cereal disease lab over the last four years. The tests were
conducted between Dec. 1 and the end of February, when the Minnesota weather is
so frigid that escaping spores would quickly perish, Carson said.
These and similar efforts at a research station in Kenya have
turned up only a handful of promising resistance genes, which crop breeders
such as Brett Carver at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater are trying to
import into vulnerable strains of wheat.
Each year, Carver crosses hundreds of plants in a greenhouse
to produce as many as 50,000 candidate strains. Over the next four years, those
are winnowed down, and the most promising 2,000 are planted in the field.
Only the hardiest strains are replanted each year, until the
12-year process results in a single new variety with dozens of valuable traits,
such as the ability to withstand drought and make fluffy bread.
The oldest of the plants Carver bred for Ug99 resistance are
only 3 years old, but one of the strains has been planted in the field already
in case the fungus hitches a quick ride to the U.S. on an airplane or in a
"In the absence of stem rust, it would not be the highest-
yielding wheat," he said. "In the presence of stem rust, it would be the only
thing that would survive."