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Killer fungus threatens wheat production in western areas

A close up of wheat stem rust.

A major wheat disease which has recently been detected in Iran will be discussed at a workshop to be held on 10-11 March at the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Aleppo, Syria.

The meeting will bring together specialists from a number of countries affected by wheat rust disease to share experiences and harmonise strategies for combating the disease.

The workshop is now timely after a highly virulent type of wheat fungus was detected in some areas of Broujerd and Hamedan regions in western Iran. Specialists have said the disease, which originated in Africa, has the potential of spreading to vast areas of the Middle East and South Asia.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warned in a statement on 5 March that entire wheat-growing fields in western Iran were threatened by the virulent type of fungus, known as Ug99.

The Stem Rust Baseline Survey Workshop is being organised by the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) which is a partnership between ICARDA, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), FAO and Cornell University. BGRI was established to combat wheat rust around the world, and supports countries in developing resistant varieties, producing clean quality seeds, upgrading national plant protection and plant breeding services and developing contingency plans.

“Very worrisome”

FAO said the presence of Ug99 in Iran was confirmed by the Agricultural Research, Education and Extension Organisation (AREEO) of Iran’s Ministry of Jihad - Agriculture after laboratory testing.

Wafa Khoury, a plant pathologist with FAO, told IRIN on 6 March that Iran’s Seed and Plant Improvement Institute, as well as the Plant Protection Organisation of Iran’s Ministry of A griculture, have been invited to the Aleppo meeting where actions to be taken in Iran will be discussed.

''The detection of the wheat rust fungus in Iran is very worrisome.''

“We have to harmonise our surveillance methodologies since the wheat stem rust strains look the same and the detection of this strain [Ug99] would require special tests,” she said.

It is estimated that as much as 80 percent of all wheat varieties planted in Asia and Africa are susceptible to wheat stem rust (puccinia graminis). The spores of wheat rust are mostly carried by wind over long distances and across continents.

Shivaji Pandey, director of FAO’s Plant Production and Protection Division, was quoted in the FAO statement as saying: “The detection of the wheat rust fungus in Iran is very worrisome.”

First discovered in Uganda

The wind-borne transboundary pest was first discovered in Uganda in 1999, which is why it is called Ug99, and it subsequently spread to Kenya and Ethiopia. In 2007 for the first time it was detected in wheat fields in Yemen. According to FAO specialists, the Ug99 strain found in Yemen was more virulent than the one found in east Africa.

Dr Rick Ward, an expert in wheat at Cornell University in the USA who is also a coordinator of the Global Rust Initiative, told IRIN that although world wheat specialists had predicted that Ug99 would migrate from Yemen towards other areas in the Middle East they did not predict its precise pathway. “But we knew that Iran would be one of the countries where the strain would arise,” he said.

Now in Iran, the wheat killer is poised to threaten countries to the east such as Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. FAO said these countries, all major wheat producers, should be on high alert.

Spreading fast

FAO’s Pandey said the fungus was spreading fast and could seriously lower wheat production in countries at direct risk. When Ethiopia and Kenya were affected by serious wheat rust epidemics in 2007 they registered considerable yield losses.

''This is the most frightening disease of wheat because of its potential to annihilate fields of wheat in a short period of time over large tracts of land.''

“This is the most frightening disease of wheat because of its potential to annihilate fields of wheat in a short period of time over large tracts of land,” said Ward.

He said the last major epidemic caused by Ug99 was recorded in Ethiopia in 1992. “The presence of Ug99 does not mean that there would be an epidemic this year or next year… It could take a long time but it is a frightening threat,” he said.

Further setback for food prices?

“Affected countries and the international community have to ensure that the spread of the disease gets under control in order to reduce the risk to countries that are already hit by high food prices,” Pandey said.

The FAO's global food price index rose 40 percent last year compared with 9 percent in 2006. Skyrocketing food prices have become a major concern in many countries, where food accounts for 10-70 percent of the consumer price index.
FAO has also warned of potential food shortages for the first time since 1970, attributing the soaring prices to the ongoing drive to use food crops to produce biofuels.

FAO’s Crop Prospects and Food Situation report, issued on 5 October 2007, noted the sharp increases in international wheat prices, and also said the situation of wheat stocks was “worrying”. Sustained demand amid insufficient increases in production this year, especially among the major exporting countries, which are also among the leading stock holders, is expected to result in at least a 14 million tonne drawdown of world inventories to 143 million tonnes, the lowest in 25 years.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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