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Call for research to protect global wheat supplies

More crop science research and knowledge exchange is needed to tackle wheat stripe rust and its effect on food security, says a report by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA).

Stripe rust is a disease that affects crops in East and North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and parts of Europe. As a result of climate changes it is spreading to previously unaffected areas.

“These epidemics increase the price of food and pose a real threat to rural livelihoods and regional food security,” Mahmoud Solh, director general of the Syria-based ICARDA says in the report.

Wheat accounts for up to 40 per cent of people’s calorie intake in the Middle East and Central Asia, and is the world’s most traded food crop.

The report was produced following ICARDA’s International Wheat Stripe Rust Symposium, a gathering of over 100 crop scientists, international policymakers and agricultural economists from 31 countries.

It calls for more investment in surveillance and the breeding of durable crop varieties that resist stripe rust, which it says can be facilitated by knowledge sharing and exchange as well as by increased focus on scientific research.

“Countries can benefit from each others’ experience in preparedness and rapid response to wheat rust diseases,” the report says. “Those with a more developed framework in place to deal with wheat rusts are able to reduce its negative impact on crop production.”

The report cites Syria, which lost up to 70 per cent of its wheat to stripe rust in 2010, compared to Turkey, which managed to keep losses to under 20 per cent.

“Regional and international cooperation is vital to seriously addressing rust diseases—no single country or organisation can control the disease on its own,” the report notes. “In this sense, rust is a ‘social disease’, and can best be managed by shared agricultural practices and policies agreed across regions.”

The report also recommends an increase in “development and dissemination of new resistant varieties, seed multiplication and adoption by farmers, research, and research capacity strengthening.”

Increased research in this area is seen as a longer-term strategy, as developing new wheat varieties to the point of release to farmers can take up to 10 years.

Research efforts should be “international”, suggests the report, echoing its calls for collaboration on surveillance and preparedness.

It says international efforts should be spearheaded by agricultural research centres such as ICARDA and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre in Mexico, which should work closely with national research and extension programmes and seed companies to develop wheat varieties resistant to rusts.