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International conference confronts Ug99

A mixture of cultures and crop specialists poured into Ciudad Obregon, Sonora state, Mexico, this week for a four-day conference on a deadly pathogen that, if left unchecked, could threaten global food security. Nearly 300 scientists, agronomists, and agricultural leaders from over 40 countries attended the event, determined to prevent this from happening.

The Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI), created in 2005 to combat wheat rusts, led the 17-20 March meeting. The focus was on Ug99, a particularly dangerous disease that attacks the stem of wheat plants and causes massive yield loss. This pathogen has already been identified in six countries, and threatens dozens more due to its wily ability to mutate and migrate.

“It is a roll of the dice of when it will arrive,” said CIMMYT’s DG Tom Lumpkin during the opening ceremony, referring to the near inevitable spread of Ug99. The disease has overcome previous resistant wheat strands, prompting Lumpkin and others to advocate ready-for-release stockpiles of new varieties that experts believe might stump the disease.

“Our scientists are making incredibly rapid progress, but we should have no illusions: a global food crisis is still a distinct possibility if governments and international institutions fail to support this rescue mission,” said Norman Borlaug, BGRI chair, 1970 Nobel laureate, and father of the Green Revolution.

Throughout the week participants attended lectures, exchanged information, and created new multilateral relationships. “There has never been such an international coordinated effort against rust diseases before. People are working together,” said Harbans Bariana, principal research fellow and associate professor at the University of Sydney’s Cereal Rust Control Program. Participants also visited the Obregon station where they saw Ug99-resistant wheat lines and enjoyed a traditional carne asada.

Hans Braun, director of CIMMYT’s wheat program, took the opportunity to recognize Dave Hodson, former head of the center’s Geographic Information Systems Laboratory, for his vital work on RustMapper, an interactive program used to track and predict the spread of Ug99. Hodson leaves CIMMYT to continue his work with the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO). “If Dave and his family ever decide that tacos in Texcoco are better than pizza in Rome, they are more than welcome to come back,” Braun joked.

The BGRI consists of a powerful group of organizations including CIMMYT, the Syria-based International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), Cornell University, the FAO, and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). The importance and international implications of this year’s meeting attracted widespread media attention. Over 100 media outlets printed individual or wire (AP, Reuters, AFP) stories about the event.