Feds back work on stem rust-resistant wheats

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has announced a pledge of $13 million for breeding work on new wheat varieties resistant to wheat stem rust.

“This research by Canadian scientists is at the forefront of international efforts,” the government said in a release Thursday. “Canadian research will not only bring Canadian farmers resistant varieties of wheat, it will also lead to a greater understanding of the biology of the fungus, and will make a major contribution to international efforts to combat Ug99 world-wide.”

The Ug99 strain of stem rust, so named for its discovery in Uganda in 1999, is not now a threat to Canadian wheat crops, but has been spreading eastward across Africa into Yemen and Sudan, the government said.

“The fungus is expected to reach Egypt, Turkey, the Middle East and India, and scientists agree that it is only a matter of time before Ug99 reaches the crops of North America.”

Federal wheat rust research is nothing new, having been a focus of work at Winnipeg’s Cereal Research Centre since 1916. Stem rust has gained a reputation as one of the most destructive wheat pathogens, having wrecked about 40 per cent of Canada’s spring wheat crop in 1954.

AAFC since then has bred varieties resistant to various rust fungi, but no researchers have yet bred resistance to Ug99.

This funding is budgeted to research the genetics and pathology of Ug99 and similar virulent strains of wheat stem rust, and to develop new wheat germplasm that is resistant to Ug99 and other emerging pathotypes.

“Not an island”

If Ug99 were to reach Canada, it could impact the cereals sector as current wheat varieties have little or no resistance to it, the government said.

The Borlaug Global Rust Initiative, spearheaded by Nobel Peace Prize laureate and wheat breeder Norman Borlaug, has previously said that to date, only 0.3 per cent of the 109 million-plus acres seeded with known varieties of wheat can be considered to have “moderate” resistance to Ug99.

AAFC researchers will continue to work within the Borlaug initiative and exchange germplasm where appropriate, the government said, and will also continue to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on this area of research.

Borlaug was quoted in AAFC’s release Thursday, describing the federal investment as an “important action to protect the wheat crop in North America and worldwide” and “a major step forward in our efforts to stem the global threat of wheat rust.”

“While (Ug99) has not yet reached Canada, we are not an island,” said Doug Robertson, president of the Grain Growers of Canada, in a separate release.

If it were to arrive here, not only would it be “potentially devastating to Canadian wheat farmers, but it will ravage resource-poor farmers, who are particularly susceptible to stem rust,” said Robertson, who farms at Carstairs, Alta.

Ug99, he said, will “further hinder international efforts to combat global poverty, by driving up food costs exponentially.”

The federal funds, coming from the Animal and Plant Health Research initiative as part of the Growing Forward policy framework, will be used over four years for research support, infrastructure and salaries of AAFC researchers dedicated to the project. Preliminary research has already begun, the government said.

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