Scientists think ‘Super’ wheat will boost food security

Scientists claim that they’re almost ready to produce “super varieties” of wheat. They say the strains will resist fungus, yield more wheat, and neutralize deadly threats to the food supply.

According to CBS Minnesota, the research is part of a global push to guard wheat crops from the Ug99 version of stem rust. It will be presented this week at a conference in St. Paul that’s part of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative, based at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., organizers said Thursday.


Scientists are also set to report that Ug99 variants are getting progressively virulent are being carried by the winds outside Uganda and other East African countries where they were initially identified in 1999. When they are infected with the deadly fungus, wheat plants become covered in reddish-brown blisters.


According to a news release delivered by the initiative before the symposium, the fungus has spread across all of eastern and southern Africa, and it might be a matter of time before it gets to India or Pakistan, and even Australia and the Americas.


“We are facing the prospect of a biological firestorm, but it’s also clear that the research community has responded to the threat at top speed, and we are getting results in the form of new varieties that are resistant to rust and appealing to farmers,” Ronnie Coffman, who heads the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project at Cornell, said in the release.


Researchers will report at the conference how new varieties of wheat under development at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico display resistance to all three kinds of wheat rust — stem rust including Ug99, yellow rust and leaf rust — the release said. Several of those varieties also boost yields 10 to 15 percent, it said.


Nevertheless substantial obstacles must be overcome before the resistant new varieties of wheat can replace the vulnerable varieties that make up as much as 90 percent of the wheat currently in production, the researchers recognized. They suggest more investments by wealthy countries and international institutions to continue manipulating the varieties, to help them keep them effective against diseases that continue to evolve, and to develop the seed production and distribution infrastructure necessary to put the new varieties in the hands of poor farmers in developing countries.


The new strains are a huge advance, said Marty Carson, research director at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Cereal Research Laboratory at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul.


“Anytime you can talk about a 15 percent boost in yields from existing varieties, I mean that’s phenomenal. And to get combined resistance to all three rusts, that’s also a very big deal,” said Carson, who wasn’t directly involved in that research. His lab, which is heavily involved in the fight against Ug99, is hosting the conference along with the University of Minnesota.


Carson said in an interview that wheat farmers in the developing world that the Mexican institute known by its Spanish acronym CIMMYT is targeting with these new variations don’t have many other choices, like fungicides, for dealing with threats such as rust. And while he was unconvinced about the 15 percent claim, he said even a lower yield increase would be a major accomplishment.


The Borlaug Global Rust Initiative was launched five years ago by the late Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug as a response to the Ug99 threat. Borlaug, an alumnus of the University of Minnesota, was a leader of CIMMYT. His research led to the “Green Revolution” of the 1960s that transformed agriculture through high-yield, disease-resistant crops and other inventions, helping to more than double world food production by 1990. He’s credited with saving perhaps 1 billion people from starvation.


Ravi Singh, a wheat breeder at CIMMYT, helped with the research on the new strains, which he’ll show off at the conference and publish later this year in the Annual Review of Phytopathology. He claims in an interview that the new varieties were developed through conventional crossbreeding, not genetic engineering. They have been tested successfully for disease resistance in Kenya and Ethiopia, where Ug99 is endemic, as well as at the USDA lab in St. Paul.


Donor-funded CIMMYT distributes its seed free of charge to keep it affordable, Singh said, and the new varieties will be established in several countries for yield trials in the coming growing season. The hope is that they can enter widespread use in a few years.