$40m grant to aid research into the elimination of evolving wheat pathogens

By Helen Glaberson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Wheat

A $40m injection will aid US university research into the elimination of “deadly” wheat pathogens by identifying new stem rust-resistant genes.

Evolving wheat pathogen Ug99 poses a dangerous threat to global food security, particularly in the poorest nations of the developing world

The five-year grant, provided by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will support Cornell University’s Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) project.

The research aims to improve surveillance and multiply and distribute rust-resistant wheat seed to farmers and their families.

"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," ​said Ronnie Coffman, Cornell professor of plant breeding and genetics and director of the DRRW project.

The DRRW project involves more than 20 universities and research institutes throughout the world, and scientists and farmers from more than 40 countries.

First discovered in 1998 in Uganda, the original Ug99 has also been found in Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen and Iran.

According to the Global Cereal Rust Monitoring System at the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) the pathogen is on the increase, 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.

Call to increase government research support

Recently more than 40 US wheat industry members headed to Washington in an attempt to urge lawmakers to protect federal investments in wheat research.

The members wanted to convince Members of Congress and the Obama Administration of the importance of investing in agricultural research in order to provide a plentiful and affordable supply of wheat, reported the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG).

The association claims that funding for (United States Department of Agriculture) USDA programmes, including wheat research, is under threat because of attempts to cut government expenditures and the “massive debt”​ of the US.

“Federal government spending on wheat research is considered discretionary spending, the type most targeted for cuts by the House Budget Committee,”​ said the association.

“Unlike crops including corn and soybeans, wheat is disproportionally dependent on public research. Wheat is also uniquely complicated, with regional-specific varieties of six unique types, called classes, grown across 42 US states. Wheat’s genome is larger than the human genome,” ​said NAWG.

According to the association, agriculture research funding has been “essentially flat”​ for 20 years while expenses for salaries and new technology have continued to climb.

Although a number of private companies have announced investments in wheat science in recent years, the industry is still highly dependent on public research funded by the federal government, state governments and producer-paid check-off dollars, said the NAWG.

More than three-quarters of varieties being used today came from public research programmes, the association claims.

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