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Rust Never Sleeps: How Bill Gates Might Save the World

Bill Gates just might save the world.

Stem Rust

You might not have heard of "stem rust," a fungus that attacks wheat and can wipe out entire fields of grain. It's been around for centuries, and was responsible for wiping out 40% of the U.S. wheat crop in 1954; since the late 1960s, however, the fungus has been kept under control by rust-resistant varieties of wheat in use around the world. It's been kept under control so well, in fact, that when a new variety of black stem rust emerged in Uganda in the late 1990s, nobody was prepared to counter it.

This new variant wheat rust, "Ug99," isn't stopped by the common form of blight-resistant wheat. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, known by its Spanish acronym CIMMYT, tracks the progression of blights like Ug99, but its resources have declined as the world grew complacent. CIMMYT estimated in 2007 that it would take five to eight years, at least, to develop and distribute a variety of wheat that could stand up to the new fungus.

It's now a race. Ug99 has now made its way out of Africa, into the Middle East and South Asia. It's already hit Iran, and is now starting to show up in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It turns out that Pakistan is the world's sixth-largest producer of wheat; India (almost certain to start seeing Ug99 outbreaks soon) is second only to China. In short, these are heavily wheat-dependent regions seeing the very real possibility of a near-term collapse in wheat production.

In Afghanistan, the crisis takes on a political hue, as wheat production has been at the forefront of alternative crops for former opium poppy growers. If wheat production collapses there, not only is there a prospect of famine, but there's a very high likelihood that the farmers will return to growing poppies—which would provide, in turn, a surge in one of the streams of funding for the Taliban.

If Ug99 makes it to China—and there's no reason why it won't—then the prospect looms of an unprecedented famine. And since fungi are easily blown about by storms, it's very likely that the U.S. would start to see Ug99 wheat blight by early in the next decade. Nearly all of the top ten wheat producing nations could see Ug99 outbreaks over the course of the next few years. If the development of Ug99-resistant wheat takes longer than expected, the world faces the staggering possibility of a global famine.

Bill GatesSo here's where Bill Gates steps in.

In 2008, the Gates Foundation donated $26.8 million dollars to the Durable Rust Resistance project, a multinational effort to track the spread of stem rust, and to quickly develop resistant strains of wheat. Cornell University coordinates these efforts, and the project is now starting to see results. Earlier this year, researchers found a gene complex that seems to kill Ug99.

In a year of frenzied international breeding programmes, CIMMYT and national labs cross-bred a wheat variety called Kingbird - which carries the new gene complex - with high-yielding varieties of wheat adapted for different regions, and tested the results against Ug99 in infected regions of Africa. Besides resisting Ug99, says Singh, the new breeds yield more grain than the varieties that farmers now grow.

It's only a single gene complex—the current variety of wheat (resistant to other forms of rust) combine three different sets of rust-resistance genes—so the potential for the rust to evolve a resistance to the resistance is great. Still, it's a fast start for the project.

$27 million is a paltry sum, on a global scale, yet it could well prove decisive. The Durable Rust Resistance project is our current best hope for getting Ug99-resistant strains of wheat to farmers around the world in time to avoid disaster. If we're successful, we'll all have Bill Gates to thank.

Stem_rust_close_up.jpg, photo by Yue Jin, U.S. Department of Agriculture, public domain
Bill_Gates_World_Economic_Forum_2007.jpg, photo by Severin Nowacki, copyright World Economic Forum, licensed as Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike 2.0

Read more of Jamais Cascio's Open The Future blog.