Wheat rust fear looms large over south Asia

concerns over a possible attack of Ug99 on wheat crops in Pakistan is soaring high. But officials in the country have said the globetrotting infectious wheat fungus has not reached croplands there. "There is no such threat now as harvesting has already begun in Sindh and Punjab provinces. However, if the southern wind changes direction and blows across, it may carry in the fungus, affecting new crops,' says Abdul Majeed Nizamani, member of the farmers union, Sindh Abadgar Association.

On March 5, the un Food and Agriculture Organization said the infection had reached Iran and alerted countries in the east of Iran, including India and Pakistan, to take preventive measures. "It is spreading rapidly and could put wheat production in the countries at direct risk.

Flight Ug99: The fungus may hit India where over 50 million small-scale farmers rely on wheat for food and income
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Many of these countries are already hit by a steep hike in food prices,' Shivaji Pandey of fao's Plant Production and Protection unit adds.

The fungus first appeared in Uganda in 1999 and that is how it gets its name. In nearly a decade, it has destroyed wheat crops in several countries. However, farmers in Pakistan are not properly aware of the infection, say experts. Wheat harvest is at hand in the region and many fear Ug99, a black stem rust fungus, will set off widespread crop loss and affect the region's food security.

"We cannot rule out the possibility of fungus attack,' Mujeeb Qazi, a scientist with the National Wheat Programme of the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (parc), says. The council says the country should import or develop Ug99-resistant wheat seed as it fears winds may blow in the rust from Iran to Balochistan in southwest Pakistan. A similar infection was detected recently in the Sindh province. But parc said it was only a local strain.

Last year, the infection damaged wheat crops in Ethiopia and Kenya (see box: How it affects), particularly in regions where similar diseases exist, Qazi says. Pakistan is under direct threat because, he says, unlike many other countries, the wheat varieties sown in the country cannot properly check the wheat fungus. When scientists tested some of such varieties in Kenya recently, many did not show "encouraging signs'.

According to Pakistan's federal crop commissioner, Abdul Qadir Baloch, the country is planning to introduce high-yielding germplasm, selected from a high breed nursery of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (cimmyt) in Mexico. The centre's tests have proved that these varieties could fight Ug99. Officials in Pakistan are also planning to develop crops containing more than one anti-stem rust genes, as advised by cimmyt.