A new strain of wheat rust could be poised to spread across Europe and the Mediterranean, covering leaves and stems with a rusty brown growth. This fungal disease can turn a healthy-looking field into a tangle of yellow leaves, black stems and shriveled grains and can wipe out an entire crop if the wheat variety is susceptible to infection.
A particular wheat rust called TTTTF destroyed tens of thousands of hectares of hardy durum wheat crops in Sicily last year. Scientists at the Global Rust Reference Center have since found that this strain can also infect dozens of laboratory-grown varieties of wheat, including those which are generally disease-resistant.
The fungal spores that cause wheat rust are spread over long distances by wind. Models of Europe’s weather conditions since the Sicilian outbreak indicate the possibility that the spores have spread across the Mediterranean, threatening European wheat crops this year. Severe wheat damage in Europe, the world’s largest wheat-producing region, could affect food prices, inflation and the region’s economic stability, says James Brown, a plant pathologist at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK.
However farming does not have to simply accept this risk. “Timely action is crucial,” says Fazil Dusunceli, a plant pathologist at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Hopefully by raising the alarm now, any spread of the disease can be avoided by monitoring crops for infections and applying fungicides as necessary. Although this could be the largest European outbreak in many years – the last wheat rust epidemic was in the 1950s – early vigilance and the sharing of information on potential outbreaks should help to protect this important crop.
(Featured image: S. Tveden-Nyborg & M. Patpour/Aarhus Univ.)