The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the British government will give Cornell’s Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat program a combined $40 million over the next five years to combat a particular strain of stem rust infections that could threaten global food security, according to a statement by the University.
“[The strain] is one of the worst diseases of wheat. It can cause real devastation,” said Prof. Sarah Nell Davidson, plant breeding and genetics, associate director of DRRW.
Various strains of the disease have been wreaking havoc on the world’s food supply for over 2,000 years, according to the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative, a research-focused organization that seeks to reduce the world’s exposure to weak rust exposure.
“It’s thought to have caused some of the major famines in the Bible,” Davidson said.
The purpose of the grant — of which the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation will contribute $25 million and the United Kingdom’s Department of International Development will contribute $15 million — is to fight the Ug99 strain, according to the University.
The strain was first discovered in Uganda in 1998 and named in 1999, Davidson said, adding that it has since spread to Kenya, Ethiopia, Yemen, Iran and South Africa. Scientists worry that it could continue to spread.
“The fear is that it may move into Pakistan and India, which is the major breadbasket for the world,” Davidson said.
Wheat spores have been known to be carried by wind from South Africa over the ocean to Australia and Cape Horn in South America, so the disease could potentially spread to those locations too, Davidson said.
In 1953, a similar strain of wheat stem rust destroyed 40 percent of North America’s wheat, according to the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative. Dr. Norman Borlaug, renowned American agronomist, developed a breed of wheat that is resistant to that particular strain of wheat stem rust, earning him a Nobel Prize. However, Ug99 can still affect this resistant breed.
“It’s thought that 90 percent of the world’s wheat is susceptible [to Ug99],” Davidson said. According to the BGRI, 30 percent of the world’s grain supply is wheat.
“If [Ug99] hits the wrong place at the wrong time, it could cause huge shortages of wheat,” Davidson said.
In addition to causing food shortages, this could also have a major economic impact on developing countries, because about half the world’s wheat comes from developing nations, according to the BGRI.
The grant, which comes after a $28.6 million grant given to the DRRW by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation in 2008, seeks to curb the spread of the disease by finding more and more resistant breeds of wheat.
“Those approaches include looking for new types of genetic resistance,” Davidson said. According to the University, DRRW has distributed five tons of Ug99-resistant seeds to nations in Africa and Southwest Asia.
“There are now some Ug99 resistant varieties out there for countries to adopt,” Davidson said. DRRW will continue breeding this resistant wheat variety in addition to working to develop even better varieties, she said.
“In the next five years we’ll be able to continue the good work that was done in the last five years,” Davidson said.