Harvest of Doom: Triple Threat to World Food Supply

by Sean Brodrick on September 30, 2010

The wheat fungus Ug99 and the threat it poses to the world’s wheat crop is something I covered in my Agriculture Report last year.  Ug99 is a wheat fungus that is devastating to crops (killing 90% to 100% of Wheat-Virus-Ug99 crops infected) and is spreading on the wind.

As UPI tells us

Ug99 isn’t a single fungus. It has developed four variants so far, which means it can overcome most of the cocktails of wheat breeds that scientists have developed over recent decades. Two particular genetic variants, known as S24 and S31 which were developed as part of Norman Borlaug’s famous Green Revolution, were long thought to have solved the problem of wheat rust.

But Ug99 defeats them. The red pustules it produces on wheat stems can burst and spread countless spores on the wind. And this means that 90 percent of the world’s wheat supplies, which produce one-third of the calories that humans consume, is at risk.

The fungus was discovered in Uganda (the “UG” in Ug99).  Then it spread across Africa.  It spread into Iran in 2007, two years earlier than expected. Next up:  India and Afghanistan.

India is bad enough.  India produces more than 70 million metric tonnes of wheat annually, making it the second largest producer of wheat in the world after China. India is also the second largest consumer of wheat.

Ug99 is threat #1.  India’s grain is already under pressure from threat #2, global warming.  According to the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, the overall food crop in India could fall by as much as 30% over the next 25 years as the climate on the subcontinent warms up, bringing killer heat spells and torrential rains and floods.

Since India’s population is expected to grow from 1.1 billion to 1.5 billion over the same period, climate change alone is a recipe for disaster.  And Martin Walker at UPI writes, “Even without the wild cards of climate change and Ug99, the long-term outlook [for the global food supply] is deeply worrying. The global population, now 6.8 billion, is expected to top 9 billion by 2050, which means a lot more mouths to feed.”

You know who else is threatened by Ug99 and climate change?  Afghanistan.  As if things there weren’t bad enough, the Asia Times tells us that …

Afghanistan faces a serious food crisis, especially through the southern, eastern and central regions, which is adding to the burden for a war-ravaged nation blighted by protracted insurgency, political instability and an entrenched illicit narcotics industry.

Afghanistan’s Ministry of Agriculture confirmed a shortfall of 700,000 tons of wheat due to a nationwide decrease in wheat output – suggesting an estimated 4.5 million tons of wheat will be produced this year, insufficient to meet projected demand for 5.2 million tons.

Flooding has destroyed agricultural plots and food stocks in nine out of 12 provinces in the central region of Afghanistan, and the possibility of the total loss of Afghanistan’s wheat industry from Ug99 infection looms.  Wheat representing between 2.1 and 2.5 million hectares of farmland in Afghanistan, or nearly 60% of the country’s entire farm plot. When Afghan farmers can’t grow wheat, they grow poppies for opium.  So, a wheat crop failure will strengthen Afghan’s drug lords, many of whom are allied with al Qaeda.

The trouble doesn’t stop there.  Pakistan neighbors both Afghanistan and India, and it is currently being hammered by freaky, crop-destroying weather and it also faces the threat of Ug99.

All three of these countries – India, Afghanistan and Pakistan – have growing, youthful populations.  Starving people will do anything to survive, and young people can easily form into an army to attack a neighboring country.  The potential for regional or even global destabilization looms.

Then we get to threat #3 — La Niña is forming.  Meteorologists have linked this year’s exceptionally long rainy season to the Pacific Ocean cooling phenomenon known as La Niña. The US-based National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration has linked periodic changes in temperatures in the Pacific Ocean – El Niño and La Niña – with volatile weather worldwide.  A long rainy season means farmers can’t get crops in the ground.

La Niña has different effects in different places in the world.  It usually means reduced rainfall and smaller yields in Southern Brazil, Paraguay and also Argentina, the world’s largest exporter of corn after the United States and the third-biggest soybean exporter. The La Niña pattern causes wet, cold weather in the U.S., which could affect planting next year.

The last La Niña event, in 2001, resulted in 4.8% less corn planted in the U.S. because of cold, wet conditions during the planting season. Farmers also planted 1.6% less acreage with soybeans in 2001 than surveys indicated they would, partly because of the same wet conditions.

But Ug99, climate change and La Niña aren’t the end of the global food crisis!  Even as there are more hungry mouths, arable land is disappearing, especially in China.  And the billion or more people in the emerging markets who are joining the middle class over the next 20 years are changing their diets.  They want meat and dairy products, and it takes more grain to feed those pigs, chickens and cows.  By some estimates, it takes 8 to 10 pounds of wheat to produce a pound of beef. So we have increased demand even as supply is coming under a triple-threat of pressure.

When I was a boy, I read a book called “No Blade of Grass.”  It forecast what might happen if the world’s grain crop failed due to a blight.  It was written as science fiction, and was probably the first dystopian book I ever read. I’d hate to think we could potentially live through this for real in the near future.

We’ve already seen a food riot turn deadly in Mozambique earlier this month.  As the pressure on the global food supply worsens, we’ll probably see more.  But food riots can’t happen here, right?  Right?

The Ug99 crisis boils down to a race against time.  Scientists are breeding new varieties of wheat in the hopes of finding some that are immune to the deadly fungus.   They’ll play “beat the clock” as Ug99 is carried on the wind to wheat fields around the world. We can only hope they win the race.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

rdmonaghan October 4, 2010 at 11:56 pm

how do i invest in wheat?…..

Reply

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