Capital Press

U.S. researchers working to protect the wheat crop from a global strain of stem rust say they need more funding.

Phil Pardey, economics professor at the University of Minnesota, says $50 million should be spent annually to develop Ug99 resistance in wheat varieties. His finding was recently published in the journal "Science."

Pardey believes researchers are taking the proper action, but their resources are limited.

Resistant varieties need to be cross-bred into existing wheat varieties, along with other desirable traits like high yield or protein content.

Pardey said he also is concerned that level of funding researchers need may not be possible with current state and federal budget realities.

He believes stem rust research efforts have been falling behind for decades. The processes take a long time to develop, but most political processes have a three-year window.

"What legislator is going to be lobbying for funding of research that pays off after they're out of office?" he said. "That's a hard sell."

The private sector has similar short-term concerns, so it falls to public universities to work on the long-term tracking of stem rust and maintaining yields, Pardey said.

Ug99 is present in Africa and the Middle East and could spread rapidly beyond those regions. It causes up to 100 percent crop loss even in wheat varieties that are resistant to other types of stem rust.

Washington State University spring wheat breeder Michael Pumphrey agrees.

"Underfunding of public agricultural development is widespread throughout the world," he said.

Funding goes into research for things like Ug99 because elected officials have a sense of urgency, Pumphrey said, but the investments are a benefit no matter what, particularly in breeding.

The biggest need is to identify places to expand production of resistant lines and replace susceptible varieties, Pumphrey said.

Pardey said it's unlikely the entire United States wheat crop would be wiped out if Ug99 were to arrive in North America, but it could cause large losses in certain locations. Wind would spread the stem rust spores.

The amount of loss also depends on when the disease arrives, Pardey said. If it arrives late in the season, it might not have much effect on yields. If it arrives earlier, and the local weather helps it grow, it could have more impact.

Previous research models have simply taken field level losses and used them to determine state or national levels, but it doesn't work like that, Pardey said. Using historical data, his team calculated the likelihood of where the disease would persist and the crop losses associated.

His team has determined there would be smaller losses than researchers previously reported, but still found the level of loss globally was sufficient to double the amount of funding to build stem rust research.

"We're looking at 2 billion more mouths to feed between now and 2050, so we're looking at having to increase wheat yields substantially," Pardey said. "When we talk about stem rust, it's not increasing yields , it's stopping them from falling."

Pardey's study was part of a four-year, $4 million project for the Gates Foundation to determine which problems to address, Pardey said.


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