There's a reason why Kansas is called the bread basket of America. It's the top-wheat producing state -- nearly double the total of runner-up North Dakota -- in the top-producing wheat country in the world. The Kansas Wheat Commission estimates that the annual wheat crop "pumps some $2.5 billion into the Kansas economy."
But scientists fear that if the fungus called Ug99 ever reaches the Midwest, it would wipe out 80 percent -- or all of -- the crop, ending not only Kansas agriculture as we know it but causing famine worldwide.
Known also as stem rust because of red spots it leaves on plants before killing them, Ug99 travels easily.
It was first noticed in East Africa (Ug is short for Uganda) in 1999
and has already moved to the Middle East where it is "poised" to take
over the considerable wheat crops of India and Pakistan.
After that, it's only a matter of time before it makes its way to North America. From the L.A. Times:
"It's a time bomb," said Jim Peterson, aThe
professor of wheat breeding and genetics at Oregon State University in
Corvallis. "It moves in the air, it can move in clothing on an
airplane. We know it's going to be here. It's a matter of how long it's
going to take." Though most Americans have never heard of it,
Ug99 ... is the No. 1 threat to the
world's most widely grown crop.
USDA, which has authority over wheat production, has been extremely
aggressive in preparing for Ug99's arrival. It has released a 27-page action plan that follows eight steps from detection to coordinating world-wide response. Last fall, its Agriculture Research Service released the first
wheat lines designed to resist the fungus.
The problem is there are more than 15,000 varieties of wheat and
cereal plants, each with their own genetic makeups that could react
differently to the disease. Determining which strains
of wheat are most resistant could take a decade or more. It's an
extremely detailed process but because of the potential for damage from
Ug99, scientists are already planting strains that show promise.
(Image via Flickr: BMCGuirk)