PARIS — Aggressive new strains of wheat rust disease have decimated up to 40 percent of harvests in some regions of north Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and the Caucasus, researchers said Wednesday.
The countries most affected are Syria and Uzbekistan, with Egypt, Yemen, Turkey, Iran, Morocco, Ethiopia and Kenya also hit hard, they reported at a scientific conference in Aleppo, Syria.
"These epidemics increase the price of food and pose a real threat to rural livelihoods and regional food security," Mahmoud Solh, director general of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), said in a statement.
In some nations hit by the blight, wheat accounts for 50 percent of calorie intake, and 20 percent of protein nutrition.
"Wheat is the cornerstone for food security in many of these countries," said Hans Braun, director of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), near Mexico City, singling out Syria.
"Looking at the political and social situation, what they don't need is a food crisis," he told AFP by phone.
Wheat rust is a fungal disease that attacks the stems, grains and especially the leaves of grains including wheat, barley and rye.
Several factors have contributed to the rapid spread of the new disease strains, known as stem rust and stripe rust, experts say.
Global warming and increased variability of rainfall have weakened the plants even as these emerging rust strains have adapted to extreme temperatures not seen before.
"To combat the problem, farmers in these regions need to adopt new varieties of wheat that have durable resistance to both stem and stripe rust," said Ronnie Coffman, a professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and vice chairman of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative.
"All of these countries have under-invested in research and preparation for this kind of scenario," he said by telephone from the United States.
While some resistant breeds are in the pipeline, national and international development efforts must be stepped up if they are to deliver in time to make a difference, he said.
New wheat varieties must also have improved yield performance, drought tolerance and regional suitability, he added.
Most of the countries affected have only meagre capacity for research and development.
More than 100 scientists and policymakers from 31 countries are meeting at the International Wheat Stripe Rust Symposium to discuss strategies for slowing the spread of disease.
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