If it’s not one thing, it’s another, for humanity. Wheat rust, the former fungal scourge of wheat, is back. Defeated by the discovery of a gene that conferred immunity to the wheat carrying it (that also increased yields and ushered in the Green Revolution), wheat rust survived in a remote corner of Africa. It has spent the past forty years evolving the ability to infect wheat with the immunity gene.
Eleven years ago, researchers confirmed the existence of the new strain of wheat rust. It has now spread across eastern Africa, to South Africa and Yemen with seven different varieties. It spreads via the air, and is poised to enter Punjab and Australia, both huge wheat growing areas.
Scientists from several countries and organizations have now found several genes that, working together, will again confer immunity. But unlike last time, when the new seeds were also higher-yielding, the new seeds this time will reduce yields slightly. It is unlikely farmers will want to plant them. If they wait until their harvest is destroyed by rust, it will be too late.
There are places where famine has never gone away. But for most of the world, famine is a distant memory, carried away on an over-abundance of food. If the new varieties of seeds don’t work, or aren’t planted, famine will stalk the land again.
I read about this in the July 3rd edition of The Economist. I highly encourage you to read the entire article.
I am very discouraged by this article. Every time I think there might be news that means humanity just might survive the next century or so without reverting to Stone Age technology, then here comes more news that says, no, we’re out of luck (wheat rust, Asia urbanizing in a way that maximizes energy use and carbon dioxide emissions).