Let’s play connect the dots, kids. Shortly after the New York Times reported on the dramatic declines in agricultural research funding over the last few decades, here are two words that illustrate exactly why that drop-off matters: wheat fungus. (And don’t go shopping for it: Unlike corn fungus, it isn’t edible.)
This specific fungus is black stem rust, which, incidentally, is a pretty decent name for a death metal band. It isn’t new: According to New Scientist, the Romans used to pray to a stem rust god. The fungus “can reduce a field of ripening grain to a dead, tangled mass, and vast outbreaks regularly used to rip through wheat regions.” Thirty years ago, Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, developed a rust-resistant wheat variety that effectively stymied the fungus. Problem is, while it was playing dead, the fungus was actually developing a new, terrifying strain called Ug99. Now, as the Wall Street Journal reported this week (subscription required), the strain “has spread to Kenya, Ethiopia, Yemen and Iran. Most commercial wheat grown world-wide has no resistance to the disease.” The UN says that areas in the immediate path of Ug99 grow 25 percent of the world’s wheat.
Ironically, the modern agriculture that Borlaug helped create—with its high inputs of fertilizer and water—may be a perfect breeding ground for black stem rust. To quote New Scientist: “[M]odern wheat fields are a damper, denser thicket of stems, where dew can linger till noon—just right for fungus.”