(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Yellow wheat rust hits supplies

Wheat stem rust devastates crops
United States Department of Agriculture

Farmers in Syria already hit by a three-year drought are now experiencing a yellow wheat rust outbreak, which has caused widespread crop losses as well as shrivelled seeds.

“Farms have suffered varying degrees of yield losses; for some it has had a tremendous effect on their livelihoods,” said Wafa El Khoury, an agricultural officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and coordinator of FAO's global wheat rust programme.

In June, the US Department of Agriculture said the Syrian government had reported that due to the impact of yellow rust, 2010-2011 wheat production could fall to 3.3 million tons, an 18 percent reduction from last year and 35 percent below record levels.

“In badly affected wheat fields, yield losses of 35-50 percent can occur, while in the worst instances nearly total crop loss is possible,” the report said.

Total wheat production in 2009-2010 was 3.2 million tons, according to government figures – enough for the planned annual strategic grain reserves but less than the 4-5 million tons predicted.

Annual wheat demand in Syria averages 3.6 million tons, but the government says the current yield might suffice.

Not prepared

The outbreak of yellow rust in Syria has mainly affected bread rather than durum wheat. The worst infection was concentrated in the northeastern province of al-Hassakeh, which shares a border with Ninawa province in Iraq.

“The application of fungicides is often not an economical option for small farmers whilst, where it was applied, they were not very effective as the disease was in a late stage,” El Khoury said.

Yellow rust has not been a major threat to Syrian farmers for the past decade. This year a warmer winter and a new virulent type of pathogen caused the outbreak to recur. “The new race can overcome the common yellow rust resistance gene Yr27, which is present in mega wheat cultivars such as Cham 8 used in 70 percent of Syria's [bread] wheat areas,” said Kumarse Nazari, a plant pathologist at the International Center for Agricultural Research for the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Aleppo.

Morocco, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan also suffered severe yellow rust epidemics this year. But ICARDA says the effects in Syria were more severe because drought conditions masked the rust.

Syria was unable to use chemical sprays early enough to greatly mitigate the crop losses. “Since the epidemic was not expected at this scale, chemical control was not fully implemented in Syria,” said Nazari.

Rising prices

Both Syrian authorities and the FAO have played down the risk of an immediate threat to food security, despite the crop losses.

However, a year of unprecedentedly severe droughts and wildfires in Canada and Russia and floods in South Asia has caused wheat prices to rise more than 50 percent since June, while the price of barley has more than doubled, according to reports.

A Russian ban on grain exports, imposed on 17 August, is expected to cause the cost of other grains and staple foods such as bread and flour to rise sharply.

To prepare for next year, the Syrian government, FAO and ICARDA will draw up a national contingency plan with a workshop to be held in the autumn.

“Syria and neighbouring countries must replace as quickly as possible the susceptible cultivars with new resistant cultivars,” said El Khoury. “This requires rapid seed multiplication, distribution to and acceptance by wheat farmers across the country.”

An even bigger threat, says ICARDA, is the spread of stem rust Ug99. The virulent fungus has spread to Kenya, Ethiopia, Yemen, Sudan and Iran since it was first identified in Uganda in 1999 and the wind-borne spores are expected to spread further.


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