Threat to world’s wheat being met with money from Bill and Melinda Gates


 Armed with US$40 million, global research team to fight Ug99; Wind-borne wheat pathogen endangers food security worldwide

 With grant from DFID and Gates Foundation, Cornell University and partners will ramp up surveillance; provide farmers with resistant wheat varieties
  
 ITHACA, NY (27 February 2011)—The United Kingdom’s Department of International Development (DFID) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today announced they will invest US$40 million in a global project led by Cornell University to combat deadly strains of Ug99, an evolving wheat pathogen that poses a dangerous threat to global food security, particularly in the poorest nations of the developing world.


 The five-year grant, made to the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) project at Cornell will support efforts to identify new stem rust resistant genes in wheat, improve surveillance, and multiply and distribute rust-resistant wheat seed to farmers and their families.

 “We cannot overstate the importance of this announcement on the part of two of the most important funders of solutions for addressing the causes of poverty, hunger and disease in the developing world,” said Ronnie Coffman, Cornell professor of plant breeding and genetics and director of DRRW. “Against the backdrop of rising food prices, and wheat in particular, researchers worldwide will be able to play an increasingly vital role in protecting wheat fields from dangerous new forms of stem rust, particularly in countries whose people can ill afford the economic impact of damage to this vital crop.”

 First discovered in 1998 in Uganda, the original Ug99 has also been found in Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen and Iran. A Global Cereal Rust Monitoring System, housed at the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), suggests variants of Ug99 are on the march, threatening major wheat-growing areas of Southern and Eastern Africa, the Central Asian Republics, the Caucasus, the Indian subcontinent, South America, Australia and North America.

 “We applaud DFID for taking a leadership role in supporting agricultural research,” said Sylvia Mathews Burwelle, president of the Global Development Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “We hope other governments in both the developed and developing world and donors will follow the UK’s lead and increase investments to provide small-scale farmers with the tools they need to improve their yields so they can feed their families and overcome poverty.”

 The new grant will allow Cornell to build on international efforts to combat stem rust—particularly Ug99 and its variants. Among the university’s partners are national research centers in Kenya and Ethiopia, and scientists at two international agricultural research centers that focus on wheat, the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (known by its Spanish acronym as CIMMYT), and the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), in Syria. The FAO and advanced research laboratories in the United States, Canada, China, Australia, Denmark and South Africa also collaborate on the project.  The DRRW project now involves more than 20 leading universities and research institutes throughout the world, and scientists and farmers from more than 40 countries.

 As part of the agreement, DFID will contribute approximately US$15M and the foundation US$25M to the DRRW over the next five years.

 “It is important that public and private institutions work together to develop long-term, sustainable and effective solutions to make life better for the world in which we live,” said David J. Skorton, president of Cornell University.

 In the 1950s, a fatal strain of wheat stem rust invaded North America and ruined 40 percent of the spring wheat crop. The late Norman Borlaug, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and a renowned plant breeder, led a team of scientists who developed high-yield rust-resistant varieties that helped launch the Green Revolution. But 50 years later, virulent new strains of the pathogen emerged unexpectedly in Uganda, putting at risk most of the wheat planted in farmers’ fields worldwide.

 Two other rusts pose threats to wheat, leaf and stripe, or yellow rust. Stem rust, of which Ug99 is a variant, is the most feared because it can quickly lead to the loss of an entire harvest.

 Since 2008, when the DRRW project was first funded with US$2.8 million from the foundation, researchers have distributed new resistant wheat varieties for testing and evaluation in 40 countries; strengthened nurseries in Kenya and Ethiopia for screening wheat for vulnerability to rusts, and distributed nearly five tons of Ug99-resistant seed for planting in the at-risk nations of Ethiopia, Kenya, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.

 “Wheat is one of Kenya’s most important crops, second only to maize. Our people depend upon it for food security,” said Ruth Wanyera, a plant pathologist with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute in Njoro. “We hope this important investment on the part of the Gates Foundation and DFID will prompt other funders and policy makers in the industrialized and developing worlds to support efforts to protect our global wheat supply.”

 Initially called to arms by Norman Borlaug, the DRRW works closely with the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) on a global strategy to avert agricultural disaster for wheat.

 “This is a major and much-welcomed investment,” said Jeanie Borlaug, daughter of the late Norman Borlaug, and chair of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI). “My Dad used to say, ‘rust never sleeps.’ The world’s leaders are finally waking up to the threat.”

David Tribe

Written by David Tribe

David Tribe’s research career in academia and industry has covered molecular genetics, biochemistry, microbial evolution and biotechnology. He has over 60 publications and patents. Dr. Tribe's recent activities focus on agricultural policy and food risk management. He teaches graduate programs in food science and risk management as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Agriculture and Food Systems, University of Melbourne.

8 comments

  1. Ug99 is a global threat. Which means, the first to develop resistant germplasm will eventually have a global market for the seed. Unless a competitor shows up.
    Since the public sector and the private sector are both working on this, we can anticipate any number of scenarios for release of the germplasm.
    One possibility is that the solution will involve genetic engineering, which means that many farmers will have to choose between losing export markets, and planting no wheat at all.
    If there’s competition for the GM solution from a conventional breeding program, protesters will work overtime to ensure that the conventional product forces the GM alternative out of the market — which means the GM R&D effort could well be wasted time and money.
    So, likely, the multinationals are putting more effort into conventional breeding on this problem, than into a GM solution.
    If you go to Information Systems for Biotechnology website at Virginia Tech, you’ll find very few wheat field trials involving fungus resistance. But, what’s the odds that someone is working on Ug99 in the US, and has it in field trials? Probably zero. The field trials are more likely to be in Uganda, etc., because fungal escape wouldn’t change the status quo.

  2. Patents on seeds are a bad thing for food security and for biodiversity. So what about GM-crops then? That means more patents on seeds, more monoculture and so far it has just given us food with more toxins. Not much to brag about! If you add that the GMO-industry has not one bit of control over the genetic pollution that these GM-crops result in, as well as no control on how the package of patented genes (which by the way more often than not comes from virus and bacteria) behave when the GM-plant crosspollinate with non GM-crops… what do you get: A GM-molotov cocktail.
    Lets make it even more simple:
    We, the consumers have never asked for GM-crops!
    We, the consumers do not need GM-crops!
    We, the consumers does not want food that destroy the environment!
    Here is a brand new book, which by the way is available as a FREE PDF document:
    The GMO Emperor Has No Clothes – A Global Citizens Report on the State of GMOs – False Promises, Failed Technologies:
    http://www.monsanto.no/index.php/en/leisure/books/180-the-gmo-emperor-has-no-clothes-a-global-citizens-report-on-the-state-of-gmos-false-promises-failed-technologies

  3. Patents on seeds are a bad thing for food security and for biodiversity.

    Citation needed.

    That means more patents on seeds, more monoculture and so far it has just given us food with more toxins.

    That is all it has given us? Tell that to farmers with more time on their hands due to better weed control methods. Tell that to Indian farmers with yields increased in the region of 100%. See how your claim holds up when you look at incidence of mycotoxins in Bt corn.

    If you add that the GMO-industry has not one bit of control over the genetic pollution

    Nice scary words there, shame in the context of GMOs that they are essentially meaningless (good use of loaded phrases such as pollution however so as to make it clear that something is bad despite giving no evidence that it is)

    as well as no control on how the package of patented genes (which by the way more often than not comes from virus and bacteria) behave

    No control? I posit that the package of patented genes, when moved to a sexually compatible cultivar, will behave essentially exactly the same as it did in the first place… hows that for control!? Also please enlighten us as to why it matters where the genetic material is sourced, as again, it appears that you’re trying to scare people – bacteria and viruses are, as we all know, inherently scary things. Until you like… think about them at all.

    what do you get: A GM-molotov cocktail.

    How so? Are these cross pollinated crops somehow flammable? Are rioters throwing them at police barricades? Were they, unbeknownst to historians, utilized in guerilla anti-tank actions in wars gone by? What, in short, are you blithering about?

    Lets make it even more simple

    Sadly I have the feeling you couldn’t get any more simple if someone were to smack you around the head with a thinly sliced lemon wrapped around a large gold brick.

    Here is a brand new book

    Ah, it appears I was wrong. Far far simpler in but a couple of lines.
    The book you are lauding starts admirably with the assertion that all farmers using GMOs are idiots. Hearts and minds doesn’t seem to be the order of the day here… it’s almost like the authors know they’re preaching to the choir. Perhaps however I’m mistaken and what is being said here is that not unlike Hans Christian Andersen’s story… the rhetoric of Vandana Shiva and her ilk is nothing more than a fairy tale?
    Chapter 1 appears to start with some nicely cherry picked data – all the datapoints which suggest lower yields on display, none of those which display higher… what intellectually bankrupt reporting of the facts… exactly what one would expect of Shiva et al
    Then some lies about efficacy of the RR system – here’s a hint, just because resistance eventually arises to a herbicide system doesn’t mean it doesn’t work – in fact if it didn’t work resistance wouldn’t happen, likewise Bt – no explanation arises as to the continuing success of both systems globally – the fall back, no doubt, is that farmers are stupid.
    Then a rehash of papers debunked… Bt toxin in pregnant women, Bt toxin harms Monarch butterflies. Boring. Does this get good, or are we seeing a rehash of the same old nonsense over and over again? Is this whole thing some sort of ironic dig at the green movement?
    Then some lies about how “superweeds” arise – the resistance isn’t transferred, it evolves (or to be somewhat more correct – there existed naturally in the population of weeds some mutants with a degree of resistance to the herbicide, the herbicide worked and thus these mutants were left sans competition) – the various modes of action of herbicide tolernace in weeds are fascinating stuff.
    Sadly at this point I must cease due to the overriding desire to tear out my own eyes lest I read any more utter garbage.

    We, the consumers have never asked for GM-crops!
    We, the consumers do not need GM-crops!
    We, the consumers does not want food that destroy the environment!

    As a consumer I ask that you not take it upon yourself to speak for me.
    I’ve always wanted GM-crops since I first heard of them.
    I firmly believe that millions currently benefit from GM crops and that in the future hundreds of millions will – we may not need them (depending I guess on how one defines a need) but life would suck a little bit more without them.
    As to the third point, it rather kills itself given that GM crops have had a net positive impact on the environment compared to the systems they replaced.

  4. OK, couldn’t help but flip through a little more of the intellecutal bankrupcy that Tore linked…
    On page 157 there is a rather stark graph comparing the costs of pesticide to the area cultivated in Bt cotton. The costs skyrocket and the area appears to remain the same over time.
    Here’s a simple exercise for anyone with a graphing program – copy the figures given. Make the plot. You’ll note you have the same graph.
    Now separate the axis for area and the axis for cost such that each are displayed independently.
    As shown next:-
    (hopefully that works…)
    Pesticide cost may be increasing at slightly more than the rate of area under use, but hardly to the extent suggested by the graph in the paper.
    Liars. How do they work? (hint – by again repeating that they are prominent physicists despite being unpublished outside of the philosophy of science)

  5. Oh html tags, how I hate thee. Thanks to whoever fixes this… assuming someone does… if not then look under my profile for the graph (which as I am not logged in will take a little more work than most are willing to do, particularly morons who take the linked book as anything other than the mental masturbation of the perpetually dishonest)

  6. As a producer and hopefully a fairly enlighted one I can speak on the RR topic. Resistance, of course, does evolve from individual resistant weeds that escape control due to the resistance and then propogate resulting in a greater qusntity of that particular weed. The area where producers have failed from a management perspective is using RR crops in succession for a number of years and using glyphosate products almost exclusively.
    I know from personal experience that a large number of producers were very pleased to apply only 1 or 2 applications of a low cost product and acheive excellent results. It used to be a battle to keep a soybean field weed free and now it’s so easy neighbors will comment on a single weed visible in the field.
    The problem of course can be rectiified by using weed control products with different modes of action. And that is occuring but not as a preventitive, like it should have been, but as a rescue treatment.

  7. The GMO-scientist that promotes the use of e.g. genetically modified crops, are nothing less than irresponsible scientists. The main reason for this is that the scientist has no clue whatsoever what he is doing.
    When a GMO scientist take genes from bacteria and virus, and force these into our food plants, they have no way of knowing how many accidental changes that where made to the plant DNA. How many genes where activated or deactivated in the process. HE DO NOT KNOW!
    The GMO scientist tell us that this is a technology. That is a big lie. We are talking about living organisms, not a car. Why do the package of patented genes spread to conventional and organic crops? WHY?
    Because nobody can control this so called technology!
    The GMO-indusry is still trying to give us the impression that they have control. How can they be in control when they do not understand how genes work? HOW?
    It is not that long ago when the PRO GMO scientists tried to inform us that one gene equals one trait. Nothing could be more wrong. The human genome consist of something like 25000 genes. And the scientist have now also detected more than 250 000 proteins. Which means that each gene on an average produce 10 proteins.
    One specific gene in the human body produce more than 400 proteins. One specific gene in the fruit fly produce approximately 38000 proteins.
    Now consider this:
    When the GMO-scientist force genes from bacteria and virus into our food plants… how many of these unintended changes do they test for? How can they test for something that they do not know exist? The fact is that they have NO CLUE of what they are doing. And we the consumers are ending up as guinea pigs.
    Has the so called technology failed. Many times:
    Here is a few examples (and there is many more):
    80 percent of the pigs where unable to reproduce, because they where fed GMO-plants:

    GMO eggplant confirmed to be toxic:
    http://www.monsanto.no/index.php/en/environment/gmo/gmo-news/173-gmo-eggplant-confirmed-to-be-toxic

  8. The GMO-scientist that promotes the use of e.g. genetically modified crops, are nothing less than irresponsible scientists.

    I don’t think any scientists are yet GMOs, but I disagree that being in favor of a GMO approach automatically makes them irresponsible.

    When a GMO scientist take genes from bacteria and virus, and force these into our food plants, they have no way of knowing how many accidental changes that where made to the plant DNA. How many genes where activated or deactivated in the process. HE DO NOT KNOW!

    The same can be said about conventional breeding. Except you can know what genes have changed, there are methods for determining this, such as microarrays, RNA seq, etc.

    It is not that long ago when the PRO GMO scientists tried to inform us that one gene equals one trait. Nothing could be more wrong. The human genome consist of something like 25000 genes. And the scientist have now also detected more than 250 000 proteins. Which means that each gene on an average produce 10 proteins.

    I think your numbers are off, but I’ll bite. the difference in the number of proteins and the number of genes is alternative splicing – which happens with particular genes that have certain kinds of introns in them. Transgenes used in GE crops have no introns, and thus, no alternative splicing. If you consider for a moment, that all these geneticists with advanced degrees and all this experience with genetics don’t consider basic genetics – maybe, just maybe, that notion is unlikely to be true.
    the Dscam gene in drosophila which you speak of is a special case – and again, it requires introns which are removed from transgenes.
    Anecdotes about pigs going sterile don’t mean much considering the huge number of animals fed GE crops where this is not observed at all – which means that something else must explain it.
    Finally, GE eggplant has not been ‘confirmed’ to be toxic. It would be quite extraordinary if it was.

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