Disaster in Waiting

UG99 Wheat stem rust at a test plot in Ethiopia. Photo by Jim Richardson

UG99 Wheat stem rust at a test plot in Ethiopia. Photo by Jim Richardson

Red spots on a Ugandan wheat stem harbor one of the greatest unsolved threats to the security and future of world food supply. 

UG99 wheat stem rust lurks in the background, largely unknown outside select circles of agriculturists who lose sleep worrying about the havoc this fungus may wreak on world food supply.

If you didn't know what you were looking for, this fungus might go unnoticed. It's just a few reddish blemishes on wheat stems, first noticed in Uganda in 1999. (Hence the name UG99.)

Viruses like UG99 can upend world order, and this fungal disease of wheat can cause total crop failure. UG99 has spread from Uganda across Africa to many nations, among them Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Yemen, Iran, Uganda, Tanzania, Mosambique, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Egypt. With its spores spread mostly by the wind, UG99 now threatens to invade India's Punjab region, the breadbasket of Asia,.

Antibiotics and pesticides will not stop UG99, only virus-resistant genes that have been bred into the wheat seeds. The urgent search for wheat genes resistant to viruses like UG99 is one of the great food security stories of our times.

Late in 2017 scientists at the University of California-Davis identified genes in a variety of pasta wheat that appear to be resistant to UG99. Now the multi-year process of plant breeding begins to grow wheat varieties potentially resistant to this crop-destroying disease. Crop researchers provide a key line of defense against famine. Their work is chronically underfunded and their story is undertold.

Want to know more?

Undark.org recently produced a six-part video documentary series, Food Fight, that explains both science and potential consequences of this crop-destroying fungus. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has a monitoring network that tracks UG99 and other crop diseases.

Why it matters?

UG 99 is but one of many challenges we face in producing enough nutritious food for a growing world population. Charles Mann's new article in The Atlantic "Can the World Feed 10 Billion People?" explores the threats to our ability to feed the planet. It is an excerpt from his probing new book The Wizard and the Prophet.

What's in it for Photographers?

Any photographer seeking to see (and show) the world of food security needs to expand their photographic tool-set beyond traditional photos that show extremes of the food story: plentiful supply (vast piles of grain) or despair (starving people.) Reaching to understand underlying fundamentals (and growing threats like UG99) is one way to do that. Look for causes as well as effects.