Policy Documents

Scientists Developing Fungus-Resistant Wheat

Kenneth Artz –
July 12, 2011

Scientists are close to developing a new strain of wheat that is resistant to a deadly fungus that threatens world food supplies. Scientists report the new “super wheat” will be resistant to the virulent Ug99 stem rust fungus. The new strain promises to boost yields up to 15 percent.

Fungus Ravaging Crops
The Ug99 fungus, first identified in 1999, has ravaged wheat crops in the Middle East and North Africa, and scientists fear it will soon spread to other parts of the world. Once infected, wheat plants become covered in reddish-brown blisters.

Where it is most prevalent, the fungus reduces crop yields by 50 percent or more, says Gregory Conko, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Stem rust fungus outbreaks have been reported since the early twentieth century. The Ug99 virus is especially virulent, reducing yields more than in the past.

Science Provides an Answer
The new super wheat is not a genetically modified organism (GMO), nor is there much opposition to it from the environmental crowd. The new strain was created through conventional breeding, but in a way that’s more sophisticated than was previously possible. Using molecular marker techniques, scientists were able to screen wheat varieties and wild grass varieties to find useful genes.

“We wouldn’t have been able to do this 50 years ago,” Conko observed. “It’s really remarkable. Since it’s a step short of genetic engineering, it’s not getting the kind of resistance from the anti-GMO [genetically modified organism] crowd.”

Delayed Solution
“If not for the anti-GMO environmentalists, we probably could have done this more quickly, at least several years and possibly a decade earlier,” Conko added. “The reason [it took longer] is that plant breeders and farmers knew that anything associated with genetic modification was a non-starter.”

“At some point, the anti-GMO hysterics are going to have to give up on their anti-science in order for the world to meet future challenges,” said Conko.

Kenneth Artz (iamkenartz@hotmail.com) writes from Texas.