Mutant fungus Ug99 threatens world crops and even political stability.

 Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune - Some wheat plants are grown under controlled conditions in a greenhouse at the Cereal Disease Laboratory at the U of M. Jim Anderson is pictured.
Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune - Some wheat plants are grown under controlled conditions in a greenhouse at the Cereal Disease Laboratory at the U of M. Jim Anderson is pictured.

The battlefields are 8,000 miles away in Africa and the Middle East. But from their bunkers of dew chambers and greenhouses in St. Paul, a strike force of University of Minnesota plant experts is devising strategies to win a high-stakes war that could prevent famine, starvation and political unrest.

The enemy, Puccinia graminis, is a new mutant strain of fungus that erupts from pockmarks on the stems of wheat and barley, exploding with millions of rusty red spores that can blow across continents. Nicknamed Ug99 after it was discovered in Uganda in 1999, this new race of stem rust is the rabbit of cereal grain pathogens — creating new generations of spores in a matter of weeks. It has crippled wheat farms in East Africa and jumped across the Red Sea to Yemen and Iran.

“This fungus has such a tremendously explosive reproductive capacity,” said Brian Steffenson, a plant pathology professor at the U who travels regularly to the Ug99 front lines in Kenya. “By way of the prevailing winds, we’re now afraid that if Ug99 gets a beachhead in the Middle East, it can spread to the breadbaskets of south Asia, Pakistan and India.

“That,” he said, “would be absolutely devastating for the world’s wheat and economy.”

Eighty percent of the world’s wheat and 95 percent of the Upper Midwest region’s top bread-baking grain is vulnerable to the new pathogen, according to University of Minnesota wheat breeder Jim Anderson.

“The stem rust fungus, like various flu strains that attack humans, is capable of mutating and overcoming the resistance of previously resistant cereal crops,” Steffenson said. “The 800-pound gorilla in the room is whether Ug99 will ever make its way to the western hemisphere and into our region.”

Anderson thinks it’s “a matter of when, rather than if” the new rust finds its way to the Red River Valley and other North American wheat fields, prompting a scramble among scientists to cross new varieties of wheat genes that can resist the scourge.

Agricultural authorities are so jittery about Ug99 infecting U.S. wheat, they allow only two labs in the country to experiment with the fungus. And both the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Cereal Disease Lab and the U’s adjacent containment facility are tucked quietly on the agriculture campus in St. Paul.

To conduct his research in the containment facility in St. Paul, Steffenson walks through a series of seven security doors, removes his clothes and dons a special suit to prevent spreading the pathogen. Just in case a spore accidentally got loose in Minnesota, the government requires all Ug99 research to happen in the winter months when the pathogen would die in the cold. When Steffenson travels to East Africa, ground zero for Ug99, he leaves a set of field clothing and pairs of his size 15 shoes in Kenya to reduce the risk of accidentally importing the fungus.

“Other diseases might nibble at a little bit of yield here and a bit of quality there, but this stem rust pathogen is a real game changer,” Steffenson said. “So we’ve really shifted into high gear to thwart it.”

As in any battle, dire developments duel with positive advances:

•In 2008, after a decade of genetic dabbling, Anderson released a variety of wheat he named Tom, which now grows on nearly 2 percent of Minnesota’s wheat acreage and shows good resistance to Ug99 in the lab.

•The Gates Foundation has funneled $26.8 million, through Cornell University, to help bankroll the research. A portion of that money is going to St. Paul-based plant scientists working on Ug99.

•Fungicides can control the new rust, although affording the chemical sprays is daunting for small-scale farmers in Africa and Asia.

“And we have not had any major epidemics in this region since the 1950s,” Steffenson said. “That’s a huge success story.”

A history at the vortex

It’s no coincidence that one of the world’s leading grain disease think-tanks has kept the upper hand on the region’s plant pathogens for decades.

Not far from the Minnesota State Fair water tower, Steffenson stood on the back of a tractor the other day, orchestrating the planting of barley seeds that will grow into part of his Ug99 research. Minnesotans have long been at the crux of crop rust research. Norman Borlaug, who died last September at 95, earned a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota in 1942 and a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for developing high-yield, disease-resistant wheat credited with saving a billion people in Asia from starvation in the 1960s.

Rust epidemics in 1916, the mid-’30s and early-’50s devastated Minnesota milling, a cornerstone of the state’s early economy, and damaged other sectors, such as railroads that lost profit when grain cars sat empty. That prompted the Legislature to pour money into the research facilities on the farm campus, where Minnesotans remain at the forefront.

Steffenson and Anderson grew up in Anoka and St. Peter, respectively. And the new resistant variety Tom is named after Tom Anderson, a grain research advocate from Sabin, Minn., who died in 2007.

Despite all the Minnesota connections, rust research is an international game. To wit: Yue Jin, the USDA’s top wheat expert in St. Paul, grew up on a farm in Inner Mongolia, and Steffenson recently hosted Russian and Italian scientists, who can’t work with Ug99 in their countries.

Their battle is nothing new. Centuries ago, Romans held an annual festival around this time of year just as rust would have taken hold on grain stems in Italy. They would sacrifice a dog and sheep and pray to the rust god to leave their crops alone.

“Scaly Robigo, god of rust, spare Ceres’ grain,” the ancient Roman poet Ovid wrote. “Let silky blades quiver on the soil’s skin … and keep scabrous hands from the harvest.”

Since those days of yore, the rust fungi have periodically flared up, mutating into new resistance-proof strains that choke the grains’ nutrients and growth. Ug99 is simply the latest scourge to plague wheat and barley growers.

“With some other rusts, you might see yield losses of 10 percent or 40 percent in a worst-case scenario,” Anderson said. “This new stem rust can virtually wipe out a crop.”

So the scientists juggle the need to crossbreed grains that are not only resistant to disease, but grow well enough to give farmers good yields for milling and baking.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Riots broke out in Eygpt two years ago when low wheat stocks triggered soaring prices and food shortages. Scientific models predict Ug99 will strike in the Punjab valley, a vital wheat-growing region that straddles India and Pakistan.

“If it gets there, there could be massive starvation and political instability,” said Les Szabo, a USDA research geneticist in St. Paul and one of more than two dozen local scientists battling Ug99.

Some of the experts have dissected the DNA sequence in the pathogen’s genome. Others focus on the host or secrets that might be locked in wild grain species. As they continue to cross genes and screen for resistance, Steffenson said both the research and the threat offer a valuable reminder.

“The pathogen is vying against those of us working with disease resistance, kind of like an arms race with one thwarting the other, as in any battle,” Steffenson said. “Many Americans take food for granted because they can easily get what they want from the grocery store. They seem to forget that food comes from crops sown in the fields where diseases have been plaguing man for centuries.”

Monsanto, DuPont Race to Win $2.7 Billion Drought-Corn Market

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Bloomberg: Larry W. Smith

By Jack Kaskey and Antonio Ligi – April 21, 2010, 12:16 AM EDT – Bloomberg-BusinessWeek/St. Paul Pioneer Press

April 21 (Bloomberg) — Lance Russell’s neighbors aren’t used to seeing corn growing in the fields around Hays, Kansas, where the plants tend to wither and keel over in the hot, dry summers. They may be in for a surprise this summer.

Russell is planting DuPont Co.’s drought-tolerant corn, one of the seeds heading to market next year that’s designed to thrive where water is scarce. An experimental plot in 2009 improved on the economics of the sorghum crop “by a landslide,” Russell said.

Monsanto Co., DuPont and Syngenta AG are vying for a similar windfall. After battling for a decade to corner the $11 billion market for insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant technologies, the world’s biggest seed companies are vying to develop crops that can survive drought. At stake is a new global market that may top $2.7 billion for the corn version alone.

“It’s a race at the moment,” said Juergen Reck, a Frankfurt-based analyst at Macquarie Group Ltd. “They must see market potential.”

The technology will have wide-ranging effects, from helping farmers draw less irrigation water to lowering insurance premiums and boosting land values in drought-prone regions, agricultural economists say. The seeds also may increase corn plantings in the U.S. Great Plains at the expense of wheat and sorghum while altering the market for biofuels.

Higher Yields

Perhaps most importantly for farmers, corn yields may climb. DuPont says seed being tested on 5,000 acres (2,023 hectares) this year is expected to boost yields in dry environments by at least 6 percent. Syngenta is targeting yield increases of at least 10 percent for its corn. Both companies used conventional breeding to develop the seeds for sale next year, with biotech versions due later in the decade.

The seeds will be a “big market” for Basel, Switzerland- based Syngenta, Chief Executive Officer Michael Mack said in a telephone interview. “Farmers around the world are going to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to technology providers in order to have this feature.”

Monsanto is moving directly to a biotech version that it says will increase corn yields 6 percent to 10 percent. The company’s seed, developed with BASF SE, may be put on sale in 2012 and become the first product genetically engineered to tolerate drought.

The Monsanto-BASF partnership, created in 2007, aims to have its drought genetics in 55 million acres of U.S. corn by 2020. In comparison, St. Louis-based Monsanto had at least one biotech trait in 82 percent of the nation’s 86.5 million acres of corn last year.

Insurance for Growers

Monsanto and BASF are also developing drought-resistant versions that can serve as insurance for growers who normally have adequate rainfall or access to irrigation. The seeds may generate annual sales of almost $1 billion assuming the trait retails on average for $18 an acre, according to Ludwigshafen, Germany-based Germany BASF, the world’s largest chemicals company.

“All players expect blockbuster potential,” said Patrick Rafaisz, a Zurich-based analyst at Bank Vontobel AG.

The global market for drought-tolerant corn may reach 150 million acres, Wilmington, Delaware-based DuPont said in a February presentation, without providing a timeframe. That implies a market of $2.7 billion, based on BASF’s $18-per-acre projection. In comparison, global sales of all seeds in 2008 were $26 billion, including $9 billion of corn, Edinburgh-based industry consultant Phillips McDougall said in a December report.

‘Game Changer’

Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of global fresh-water use, Monsanto Chief Executive Officer Hugh Grant said in an interview. Reducing irrigation not only contributes to more sustainable farming, it’s a “game changer” that will boost profits and help feed a rising world population, he said.

“The biggest single issue in farming going forward is water, use of water, water availability in many parts of the world, so I think it will be a significant product,” Grant said.

Monsanto also is engineering crop seeds including cotton, wheat and sugar cane for drought tolerance, and the company and BASF are donating drought-resistant corn technologies to farmers in sub-Saharan Africa through the Nairobi-based African Agricultural Technology Foundation.

The prospect of drought-resistant seeds isn’t winning over opponents of genetically modified foods, who say the latest technology may taint conventional corn supplies and allow large companies to perpetuate an industrial agricultural system that harms water resources.

‘System of Expansion’

“Their approach is that the market system of expansion we have is just fine and we can use technology to adapt to any problems and make money at the same time,” Maude Barlow, chairwoman of Washington-based Food and Water Watch, said in e- mailed responses to questions. “We are also very concerned about the possibility of this genetically engineered corn contaminating the stock.”

The technology will expand the U.S. corn-growing region westward while helping the country’s farmers cut their irrigation bill, said Kevin C. Dhuyvetter, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University. The trait may reduce farmers’ insurance premiums and ultimately boost land values in water-starved regions of Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma, he said.

“If we can apply 2 inches less water, that would be a huge benefit because the groundwater supplies are always diminishing,” Dhuyvetter said in a telephone interview.

Effect on Markets

By expanding the corn-growing region, the technology can help grow more grain to meet government targets that call for tripling use of biofuels including ethanol, which is made from corn in the U.S, by 2022, said Art Barnaby, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University.

Growing more corn may lower prices, benefiting grain- importing countries, Barnaby said in a telephone interview. The biggest buyers of U.S. corn last year were Japan, Mexico and South Korea, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Still, price changes won’t be significant because increased supply may be consumed by rising ethanol production and a growing world population, he said.

Climate change may affect all of the variables. Global warming will increase vulnerability to drought in many U.S. regions, according to the Geological Society of America, and that may increase the need for drought-resistant seeds.

“If you are in the drylands, this is a big deal,” Mark Gulley, a New York-based analyst at Soleil Securities, said in a telephone interview.

It certainly is for Russell, the Kansas farmer. He said DuPont’s drought-tolerant corn outperformed other varieties by 15 percent last year when the weather was relatively moderate.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t mind a dry, hot year where I can really test these varieties,” Russell said.

–With reporting by Peter J. Brennan in Los Angeles and Richard Weiss in Frankfurt. Editors: Steven Frank, Kevin Miller.

To contact the reporters on this story: Jack Kaskey in New York at kaskey@bloomberg.net; Antonio Ligi in Zurich at aligi@bloomberg.net.

Will the FDA Tighten Up on Corn?

The guidelines issued for testing GM Corn seem to leave a lot of room for doubt, questions, and worse: blame.

There are numerous studies conducted by independent agencies (which are funded by other independent groups who, no doubt, have an agenda to service)  that have been used to illustrate that the FDA must take the results of these trials seriously and ban the use of GM seed. After all, these same GM crops are banned in Germany, France, and other parts of Europe, so they must be bad.

Maybe the testing standards of GM seed and their resulting crops should be better aligned with seeking out long-term effects of consumption and use. The FDA might benefit from revisiting and adjusting these standards if the reward is the prevention of the sorts of disease and complications that have arisen in testing done by groups funded (even in part) by Greenpeace.  If the testing standards are widened to include periods of time that will allow for long-term effects to materialize, the use of GM seed and crops may prove to be far more expensive than using non-modified seed and having to plant more of it to get the same crop yields.

The study done by biologists de Vendômois, Roullier, Cellier, and  Séralini is alarming. These scientists state

“Our analysis clearly reveals for the 3 GMOs new side effects linked with GM maize consumption, which were sex- and often dose-dependent. Effects were mostly associated with the kidney and liver, the dietary detoxifying organs, although different between the 3 GMOs. Other effects were also noticed in the heart, adrenal glands, spleen and haematopoietic system. We conclude that these data highlight signs of hepatorenal toxicity, possibly due to the new pesticides specific to each GM corn. In addition, unintended direct or indirect metabolic consequences of the genetic modification cannot be excluded.”

It would seem that, at the very least, Americans should be allowed to KNOW if what they are consuming has been made with any of these modified products : NK 603, MON 810 and MON 863. However, the FDA does not require products made with these GMOs to be labeled as such. Why aren’t we encouraged to know?

What strikes the loudest chime in all this kerfuffle is that Monsanto did thier own analysis of the GMO, but

“It is very surprising that the experimental design was elaborated and performed at the MSE-N laboratory, a Monsanto company, and that the statistical analysis of the data was carried out by Monsanto’s statistics centre. This is likely to seriously impair the independence of the expertise involved.”

And many scientists have similarly stated that “There are a number of open questions and indications that Monsanto’s conclusion is premature and the data have to undergo further investigation.”  Because

“the final report concludes that “…rats fed corn grain containing event NK 603 corn responded similarly to rats fed parental and reference control grain..” and that “… Roundup Ready NK 603 corn is equivalent to its parent control line and nontransgenic commercial corn varieties…”

The reason for this conclusion comes from the observation that the number of significant observed differences is of the same order as the number expected by chance. Therfore, the statistical analysis concludes that those differences occur randomly, are not relevant and can not be considered biologically significant. But this is not final proof that the significant effects are not related, nor that they are not important for mammalian health. Further studies have to be conducted.”

All the debate about use of GMOs, labeling, research and reporting methods, opens a new can of worms: With discussions about the health care system and mandatory health plans, one begins to question the real problem at hand. You can put that one together, right?