(Reuters) - A devastating wheat fungus is active in 11 countries in Africa and the Middle East, according to scientists striving to develop resistant varieties before the fungus can attack fields around the globe.
Up to 90 percent of the world's wheat is susceptible to the strain of stem rust, called Ug99, first detected in Uganda in 1999. The oval, brick-red lesions of stem rust sap wheat plants and cut yields by 50 to 70 percent over wide areas and can destroy entire fields.
Ahead of a meeting of scientists next week in St. Paul, Minnesota, researchers said they are close to producing rust-defeating varieties that also boost yields. Wheat is the most widely grown food grain in the world and is second only to rice as a food staple.
"We're pretty confident," said Ronnie Coffman of Cornell University, of endowing wheat with three or four genes that resist rust, a virtually unbeatable combination. Still, it can be years, even a decade, before resistance can be transferred into local varieties and grown widely.
The new varieties would not be genetically modified. Wheat growers have resisted using GMO seeds because of consumer concerns, especially in Europe.