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New USDA greenhouse to fight wheat rust; researcher says more needed

By JERRY HAGSTROM

Scientists will fight wheat rust from a new state-of-the art Agriculture Department greenhouse at the University of Minnesota, but a key researcher says more money is needed if the fungal disease is to be fought successfully in Africa before it reaches North America.

The Agriculture Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) broke ground Monday on a 2,880-square foot state-of-the-art greenhouse on the University of Minnesota campus in St. Paul that will be operated by scientists from the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), USDA's principal intramural scientific research agency.

The groundbreaking was part of a four-day research conference that drew 400 of the world’s top wheat and barley experts to the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.

“Since 1999, the world has faced a new and unprecedented threat from a stem rust called Ug99,” said ARS Administrator Edward B. Knipling. “More than 80 percent of our global wheat crop is vulnerable to Ug99. This new greenhouse puts another U.S. research facility on the front lines to battle Ug99 and help secure global food security.”

The greenhouse will increase controlled growing space at ARS’ Cereal Disease Laboratory on the University of Minnesota campus in St. Paul, and boost the laboratory’s analytic capacity five-fold, USDA and USAID said in a news release. The construction of the greenhouse is being funded through a $4.5 million cooperative agreement between USAID and USDA’s “Feed the Future” global hunger and food security initiative, they said.

“By expanding our commitment to research that targets crop diseases like Ug99, we can strengthen food security and reduce hunger and poverty in countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Pakistan,” said Robert Bertram, head of USAID’s Office of Agriculture, Research and Technology. “This research concurrently helps U.S. scientists protect America's wheat crops.”

But Ronnie Coffman, a professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., who runs the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative, said that he is worried about whether there will be enough money to solve the wheat rust problem before it spreads around the world and to North America.

Coffman is the last doctoral student of the late Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for developing the wheat that led to the Green Revolution. In an interview, Coffman said that Borlaug was very concerned about Ug99 before he died, and persuaded the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to provide early financing for research before anyone else would pay attention.

“Borlaug likened it to a firestorm — a great scourge going back to biblical days," Coffman said.

Coffman has a budget of $40 million for the research, including money from Gates, the U.S., Canadian and Australian, Kenyan and Ugandan governments and development groups, but says more money is needed because Ug99 is wind borne and can spread fast.

“This rust is epidemic in Kenya and has spread up and down the East African coast,” he said. From South Africa, wind currents could carry it to southern cone of South America or Australia, from Yemen it could spread to South Asia or Europe.

“It’s only a matter of time until it escapes Africa,” Coffman said, adding that it has already been identified in Iran, where it was spread by a tropical cyclone.

Researchers are already encouraging farmers in Ethiopia, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh who are in the path of the fungus to plant wheat varieties that show some resistance to rust, but note that farmers do not want to make changes unless they need to.

The new facility in Minnesota, Coffman said, is trying to make up for lost time. “Investments have been dismal in the public sector,” he said. “USDA had only one guy working on this,” he noted, with modest facilities and greenhouses dating back to the time that Borlaug studied at the University of Minnesota.

Research money has to come from government, Coffman said, noting that seed companies do not put much money into wheat research because they do not make the same kind of money from wheat that they make in other crops.

Wheat is self-pollinating, he added, and farmers often keep their own seed. Seed companies are interested in wheat biotechnology, he said, because they could make money on it, but “On Ug99 they are not disinterested, but they are not investing heavily in it.”

The Obama administration does see international development as an important focus, Coffman said, but he worries about whether Ug99 will be addressed before it reaches the United States.

“A wheat-growing nation like the United States should be putting in more money," he concluded.