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New fungus threatens wheat crop

NAIROBI, Kenya -- A new strain of a wheat fungal disease that has emerged in East Africa may spread if steps are not taken to develop resistant wheat, researchers said yesterday.

The scientists said the disease has already affected wheat farms in Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia and warned that as much as 10 percent of the world's wheat crop could eventually be damaged if the disease is not tackled.

A team of researchers drawn from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, based in Mexico, the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, and other organizations wrote a report on the disease that was made public yesterday.

''What you have to do is prepare for it. You have to work together to identify resistant varieties of wheat, which is at this time really the only viable solution, particularly for small farmers," said Ronnie Coffman of Cornell University, chair of the specialists' panel. ''You can do something . . . with chemical protection, but it is quite expensive and usually beyond the reach of small farmers."

Masa Iwanaga, the director general of the center in Mexico, told journalists that it would cost about $3 million a year to develop wheat varieties resistant to this relatively new variant of a fungal disease called stem rust that eats away wheat from the stem up.

The strain, first confirmed in Uganda in 1999, attacks wheat as it sprouts from the ground and throughout its life span, whereas other variants of stem rust attack it only when it is flowering, according to Miriam Kinyua of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute.

This means farmers have to apply fungicide at least three times during a wheat plant's lifetime, rather than the usual onetime spraying, adding to the costs of production, Kinyua said. She said that Kenyan small-scale farmers, who produce 20 percent of the country's wheat, have lost as much as 50 percent of their harvest because of the disease.

The strain was spread by wind from Uganda to Ethiopia and Kenya, said Ravi Singh of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.

The new variant could spread to Egypt and Jordan because of the wind patterns between those countries and East Africa, and from there it can easily spread to the rest of the Middle East and Asia, Singh said.

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