Deadly plant plague threatens wheat production in Afghanistan, India and Pakistan

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Washington, July 31 (ANI): Scientists are racing to arm Afghanistan against a deadly, airborne wheat rust disease that threatens wheat production and food security in this war-torn nation and the region that stretches east across neighboring Pakistan and into India.

Known as "Ug99", this deadly new virulent race of wheat stem rust has thus far been found in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Sudan, and has more recently spread into Asia, to Yemen and now Iran.

"It is only a matter of time before it reaches Afghanistan and then South Asia," said Dr. Mahmoud Solh, Director General of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Aleppo, Syria.

"We have been lucky so far, but we know that the disease is heading in this direction, and most of the varieties planted in the region are at risk. In fact, most of the wheat varieties used around the world are vulnerable to this stem rust; the last major outbreak of stem rust was seen during the 1950s," he added.

The threat of Ug99 to the wheat fields of Afghanistan and other nations in the region has led wheat experts to agree that at least 10 percent of the nation's wheat fields must be replaced on an annual basis with Ug99-resistant varieties that are also adapted to conditions in Afghanistan.

"The stem rust threat is particularly dangerous because nearly all farmers in Afghanistan grow wheat for food or sale," said Dr. Mahmood Osmanzai, a wheat scientist from the International Center for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat (CIMMYT).

"A wheat stem rust epidemic would be economically and culturally significant and far reaching," he added.

According to Osmanzai, the emerging stem rust threat has added a new urgency to ongoing efforts to improve agriculture in the region.

"CIMMYT and ICARDA have been providing improved seed as well as training Afghan wheat scientists since the 1970s," said ICARDA scientist Dr. Javed Rizvi.

"To tackle Ug99, we would need to move faster than we ever have before, in order to address the threat and replace old varieties with new resistant ones," he added.

According to Rizvi and Osmanzai, addressing wheat diseases such as stem rust and yellow rust is vital to any strategy to improve food security and agriculture in Afghanistan and of crucial importance in preventing the spread of Ug99 into Pakistan and India. (ANI)

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