Famine around the corner?

Post Source: DAWN Newspaper


There has been little or no mention in our local news media of a looming catastrophe which could possibly threaten the very existence of Pakistan.

Ironically it is not related to any new form of extremist terrorism, but instead stems from fungal spores carrying the name of UG99. And these microscopic sized spores have the terrible potential of dragging our country to its knees.

UG99 — so called because scientists first identified it on a wheat farm in Uganda’s highlands in 1999 — is a deadly new strain of an old crop disease called black stem rust. Within a few days it turns wheat into a tangle of blackened and broken stems causing 80-100 per cent yield losses.

In recent years it was widely believed that the threat from stem rust had disappeared as a result of new disease-resistant ‘Green Revolution’ wheat varieties that had been introduced in the 1960s. But UG99 has evolved to attack these varieties, and it is now believed that 80-90 per cent of all existing wheat varieties are completely vulnerable to this virulent new strain.

When UG99 was first identified in Uganda it drew little attention as very little wheat was grown in the country. However, the Ugandan highlands provided a suitable host plant — the barbery bush — which allowed the fungus to thrive and flourish. In this area of high altitude, in places 7,000 feet above sea level, the intense solar radiation helped the fungus mutate into a deadlier strain. It caught international attention only when it spread from Uganda to neighbouring countries and began wreaking agricultural devastation.

By 2001 UG99 had spread to Kenya and to Ethiopia by 2003. It is believed that in June 2007 a cyclone (Gonu) carried the rust spores across the Red Sea to Yemen, as well as northwards towards Sudan. In March 2008 the fungus was detected in the major wheat-growing regions of western Iran. Soon after its discovery in Iran, the Food and Agriculture Organisation put its five neighbouring countries, including Pakistan, on high alert.

Scientists, who have tracked similar airborne spores in this part of the world, now predict that within the next one or two years UG99 will travel to Pakistan, its immediate pathway being located in Sindh and lower Punjab.

In 2006 the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) began screening over 1,500 wheat varieties from a host of countries for their vulnerability against UG99. Out of the 115 Pakistani varieties tested, disturbingly only two proved to be resistant and five moderately resistant to the fungal disease.

Pakistan’s first line of defence against UG99 may be the use of fungicides, but this process is probably too cumbersome and expensive to provide a long-term solution. In a UG99 emergency not only will jumbo cargo planes be required to deliver the fungicides to Pakistan, it is unlikely that international supply will be adequate to meet the sudden demand. Besides, many experts believe that fungicides will prove too costly for farmers in the developing world.

The only real solution is to grow UG99 resistant wheat. However, done properly it involves a lengthy nine to 12 years. While foreign scientists, after a few years of hectic research, have already managed to identify a handful of genes that should prove useful in protecting wheat from UG99, incorporating these genes into a wheat variety using normal breeding techniques can take up to 12 years. This work has only just begun.

According to reports the Pakistan government has officially allocated Rs40m to combat the threat of UG99. The Pakistan Agricultural Research Council and the National Wheat Programme (NWP) are believed to have devised a crisis plan to produce local UG99-resistant wheat varieties. Dr Mujeeb Qazi, the programme director of NWP, has admitted that the germ plasma of all major Pakistani wheat varieties failed when tested against UG99 in Kenya. It will take a period of several years before new wheat-resistant varieties find their way to the crop fields, no matter how hard our agricultural scientists work at it. Cognisant of this ominous reality Dr Qazi issued a timely warning in 2008, ‘Danger is at our doorstep’.

In 2009 it is estimated that due to a bumper crop 24 million tonnes of wheat were harvested in Pakistan against food consumption of 22 million. Using these figures as a yardstick and assuming a UG99 devastation rate of 80 per cent our national wheat harvest could be reduced to 4.8 million tonnes, or even less. This will be more than a mere shortage of food — a state of famine might be the more horrifically accurate outcome.

The majority of Pakistanis are not only poverty-stricken, they are helplessly caught up in serious issues of widespread unemployment, rampant governmental corruption, a near complete breakdown of law and order and now even an absence of electricity. Their patience so far has been remarkable. If someday in the near future the country suddenly runs out of the ‘basic of the basics’ — wheat flour to make roti — violent urban anarchy might become the order of the day. The various elites of Pakistan are well known for their lack of forward planning.

The present and the opportunity it offers become all important, while the future is all too often complacently left in the bottom drawer and forgotten. In view of the gravity of what might be at stake, urgent plans ought to be made for every possible contingency, which can then be swiftly implemented when the need arises. As the old adage goes it is time to hope for the best and plan for the worst. But then, on second thought, it is maybe asking them to do the impossible.


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