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17/04/2008 | A Wheat Fungus and the Potential Food Crisis

Stratfor Staff

A fungus that affects wheat growth has spread beyond East Africa into southern parts of the Middle East. Given the coming monsoon season, it could spread to South Asia — potentially causing a major disruption of wheat production. At a time when supplies are already down, the spread of this fungus could create a global crisis.

 

A strain of the fungus Puccinia graminis that is highly lethal to crops reportedly has spread across the Red Sea to Yemen from Africa, where Kenya and Ethiopia reportedly already face epidemic levels of the fungal infection. There are also indications the strain — known as African Rust or Ug99, signifying that it was first discovered in Uganda in 1999 — has crossed the Persian Gulf into Iran.

Unlike many other fungi that reduce crop yields, Ug99 can cause total crop loss. It inflicts this devastation because it grows primarily in the stems, clogging up the vascular systems of the plants and preventing carbohydrates from traveling through plants’ leaves to their grains.

Although Ug99 has taken nearly a decade to spread beyond Uganda to the southern Middle East, the upcoming monsoon season could allow the fungus, which spreads via airborne spores, to reach the major wheat producing region of South Asia, particularly Pakistan and India. And both India and Pakistan already have experienced wheat shortages over the past few months.

Wheat harvests in these two countries, which together account for 20 percent of the world’s wheat production, are in jeopardy because of their poor response capability with regard to combating the fungus. While they can provide some relief, fungicides are only a short-term solution and one that is available only to larger farms. Nearly 50 percent of the world’s wheat production takes place in developing countries, which lack the resources to fight the pathogen in the short term or to invest in research and development needed to develop a solution in the long term.

If Ug99 spreads to South Asia and beyond in the near future, it would do so while food supplies already are under pressure. Potential shortages would be exacerbated since many countries have decreased exports in effort to combat domestic inflation, creating a tightening of global food supplies. A destruction of the wheat crop caused by the spread of Ug99 thus would lead to a global wheat crisis.

Regardless of whether Ug99 hits Asia, the possibility alone could raise prices of wheat and discourage exports as countries prepare for a possible disaster, meaning the threat alone has the potential to be as disruptive as actual harvest shortages in the short term. Such a crisis combined with shortages of other foodstuffs could generate social unrest in many parts of the world, possibly sparking conflict over resources and disrupting economic activity.

Stratfor (Estados Unidos)

 



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