How to grow your own wheat
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine
Global stocks of wheat are plummeting and people are starting to worry about the price of staples like bread. But can you beat the commodity market by growing your own?
Look out your back window. How’s the grass?
If you’ve got a garden at all, it might be that the grass is an unloved scrub as sparse as Elton John’s hair used to be. Or it could be a lush strip of glorious verdure.
Either way, the odds are you’re not getting much use out of it. Wouldn’t it be great if you could improve your health, help the environment and at the same time do your part to fight inflation?
The world is running dangerously low on wheat, one of civilisation’s original staple foods. Drought in Australia and China and a switch to meat in the newly prosperous parts of the world are putting the squeeze on wheat. Prices are at a record high.
Baker and organic food campaigner Andrew Whitley believes the answer lies in your back garden and that it’s time, as he puts it, to “bake your lawn”. He is launching the Real Bread Campaign.
“If wheat makes bread why not grow bread just like you grow vegetables. We think of it as being a massive prairie-style enterprise but it is just a plant like anything else. It’s like grass.
“There are few things that give greater satisfaction than being able to grow something and harvest it and share it with friends and family.”
In the UK, we eat a lot less bread than we did in the 1950s. But it’s still a fair bit. In 2000, we ate 720g per person per week, the equivalent of just under one large loaf.
From this Whitley has worked out how much garden we would need to put over to wheat production to cater for all our own bread needs. Assuming each 720g loaf of bread uses about 432 grams of flour, that’s 22.5kg of flour per year just for our bread needs. With a family of four you get a total of 90kg of flour.
A conservative yield estimate of three tonnes of wheat per organically-cultivated hectare is reasonable, Whitley suggests. Assuming you’re going for an extremely wholewheat approach – using the whole grain, including bran and germ – each tonne of flour pretty much equates to a tonne of wheat (in British commercial milling 4.5 million tonnes of flour is made from 5.5 million tonnes of wheat every year), then you need 297 square metres of wheat to provide your family with bread.
And there’s the rub. According to Garden Organic, the organic growing charity, the average British garden size as of 2006 was about 90 square metres.
Furthermore, Whitley strongly advises you only use a quarter of your garden at any one time to produce wheat. A “monoculture” of wheat year in year out would exhaust the soil and allow the spread of disease. Using your 22.5 square metres of land would only provide 6.8kg of flour. And while those in the south-east and east of the UK are in wheat territory, those in the rainy west may find they struggle.
“ Many people see this as a terrible, ghastly, pathetic throwback to an era of grinding toil ”
But Whitley knows most people will not be able to grow all their own wheat and suggests even producing a couple of loaves-worth a year would be a triumph.
Those in the wheat industry are a little sceptical to say the least. Martin Caunce, owner of Brow Farm in west Lancashire, sells milling wheat and hand-operated mills so people can produce their own flour, but suggests most people will not want to take the final step and grow their own wheat.
“It is more feasible to grow your vegetables and buy your bread,” he says. “It takes too much space. You just couldn’t make it pay.”
Lot of bother
The argument is that you could save a great deal more money by following the example of Tom and Barbara in The Good Life and focusing a bit more on vegetables.
Sally Smith, an adviser at Garden Organic agrees, suggesting: “It’s a lot of bother for very little return. You would need a smallholding really.”
But assuming you do want to grow your own, Whitley recommends turning over the soil and finely raking it. Your wheat seeds should be of a long straw variety and you should scatter evenly before raking over them.
Undersowing the crop with grass and clover might help with weeds, nutrient balance and avoiding bare earth after the harvest.
Planting might take place in late March or April and harvest might typically be in August, stretching into September if the crop has had a bad year.
You could follow the ancient test and bite down on a grain to see if it’s ready to harvest, Whitley suggests. If it’s hard, it’s ready. If it’s squishy, it’s not.
Winnow or bust
Use a sickle or scythe to harvest the wheat, leaving at least two or three inches of stubble. The stalks should be bound into sheaves and then threshed. Whitley advises putting the ears into a pillow case with the stalks poking out the bottom and then whacking them on a brick wall.
You must then winnow the wheat. Traditionally this was done by throwing the wheat up into a breeze. The heavy grain would fall back to the floor, while the wind blew the chaff away.
WHY IS WHEAT EXPENSIVE?
Drought in China/Australia
More meat being eaten
Milling can be done in a specialist hand mill, or even in a hand cranked coffee grinder, Whitley suggests.
To some it may all sound like rather too much effort, but Whitley, who first grew wheat on four square metres of his allotment in Stoke Newington in 1974, disagrees.
“Many people see this as a terrible, ghastly, pathetic throwback to an era of grinding toil.
“[But] it is a great way of getting control over what goes into your bread, to make sure no nasties get in.”
In the end most of us do not have the gardens to conjure up the wheaty romance from the end of movies like Gladiator or Witness.
But to look out over the kitchen sink at even a couple of square metres of gently oscillating wheat would be an achievement.
And, as Whitley notes, there is one fringe benefit – you can have your own crop circles.
Below is a selection of your comments.
It would be worth it just for one loaf you could really call your own.
Martin Comer, London UK
Funnily enough my brothers and I did this on a very small scale as children at about the same time as Mr Whitley. My father stopped the car one evening for us to look at a combine harvester at work, we took some of the wheat that was not harvested at the edge of the field home, threshed it and planted it the following spring. That autumn we harvested, threshed, and then ground it using stones from the rockery. Looks like we were 30 years ahead of our time!
John Boxall, Frome
I’ve been baking my own bread for six months and wouldn’t eat a shop loaf now if you paid me so growing it seems like the next logical step. I have about twelve square metres ready for ploughing – hmm – not quite enough is it?
As for not getting any “nasties” in it. British farmers and millers have to operate to some very high standards and as such the chances of having any rogue elements in your daily loaf of bread are slim to none, compared to organic grain that is high in mycotoxins and usually contaminated with ergot, a poisonous fungal infection of grain. So forgive me if I don’t take Mr Whitley up on his offer of sharing his loaves of bread. I think I’ll distil mine and make some alcohol instead.
Phil , Norwich, Norfolk
We have grown wheat on our seven acre smallholding for four years. It’s hard work and not as straightforward as one might think but fun. Rabbits have been the main problem. I have at various stages done everything by hand apart from ploughing and cultivating the soil. One highlight was getting 70 sheaves threshed for free by a traction engine thresher at a local fair.
Paul Lovatt-Smith, Hailsham, E Sussex, UK
Due to the small amount of grain produced I would not grow it. For experimental purposes I would be interested to see one day how it would work out. I think it would be far too labour intensive on this scale without machinery, leave it to the experts on a more productive scale (crop rotation required as well). I already grow sweetcorn, courgettes, beans, onions, shallots etc. Grow the expensive stuff to subsidise what is getting more expensive.
M Weeks, Worcestershire
It would be a lot easier to just stop eating wheat altogether and switch to potatoes. This is why the Irish potato famine was really, really bad – potatoes provided far more energy food per measure of area than wheat so families needed less land to feed themselves. Then when the potatoes got blight, there were big problems. Now we have blight resistant varieties so potatoes are the way forwards. You don’t have to do all that threshing and grinding stuff either – just dig them up, clean them up, prick them and stick them in the oven for 45mins.
Kate, York, UK
A few years back I got some wheat seed from a local farmer friend and put in a small patch of wheat, say 20′ by 40′. It grew beautifully and we were thrilled. When it was ready to harvest, we cut it down and bundled it up. Not so easy as we thought. Then trying to get the wheat off the stalk nearly did us in. We thrashed and thrashed and wore ourselves out. We did manage to finally get some grain loose and then threw it up in the air to blow the chaff off. I think we finally ended up with a few cups of wheat. The rest we stashed away for a year or two then finally threw it out in a field for the birds to pick at. Lesson learned: harvesting wheat is extremely labour intensive. And we gained an immense respect for those cultures who did it all (and some places still do) by manual labour and did it all day long, day after day, field after field.
Nina, Alberta, Canada
Having grown perhaps a million bushels of wheat in my lifetime should give me a little licence to comment. While I find it very noble and also rewarding to grow one’s own wheat it takes considerable effort to harvest and thresh the grain. One must also consider if they will plant a variety that lends itself well as to the proper milling and baking properties. Will it have the correct amount of gluten? Will it have a good taste? Will it have the proper protein content? You in the UK are known for your great gardens so by all means utilise your space for growing vegetables, but allow those with machines to produce your otherwise labour intensive wheat.
Greenbeanman, The Wheat State, Kansas, United States
As I understand it, UK-grown wheat has a lower gluten content than North American-grown varieties. This produces rather hefty wholemeal bread, not to everyone’s taste. But it can be mixed with Canadian wheat to lighten it up a bit. It would be satisfying to grow your own supply of wheat – couldn’t families sponsor farmers to grow wheat for them? Some organic farms run schemes like this already.
Elspeth Gibson, Glasgow
My garden is much smaller than the average size given in the article so no I won’t be growing any wheat. However, I do grow salad crops, beans, blackberries, raspberries, rhubarb, onions and potatoes which goes a long way to supplement my family’s diet. It might be more viable on an allotment site where land could be allocated for wheat growing and a group could work it together for mutual benefit.
Gwen Seller, Wirral, Merseyside
Well, I’m allergic to the stuff- it’s mildly amusing to see the price of ‘normal’ bakery produce catching up with the cruelly over inflated price of gluten free baked goods.
E Russ, Leics, UK
As lovely as it sounds to home grow our own bread, what about the attractiveness of wheat to rats? I don’t want hordes of them in my side garden. Shouldn’t we support our local farmers instead and the government provide more incentives for British farmers to produce the food we vitally need? Perhaps increase pressure on supermarkets as well?
Bread Lover, Herts
Not in the garden, perhaps, where vegetables and fruit close to the back door would be more practical. But a full-size allotment is 300 sq yds, not far off the required 297 sq m, so that’s an option. Trouble is, wheat doesn’t grow well everywhere, such as here in wet mid-Wales, and some of us might have to choose an alternative bread cereal like oats or rye instead. Certainly worth considering, though.
Andi Clevely, Llanidloes, Powys
There are other good reasons to have wheat in the garden. The taste of ripe wheat nuts fresh off the stem is incredible, an experience not available plastic-wrapped in stores. Green wheat stems themselves can be chewed on or sucked for a tasty sweet delight. In the USA, much more so than England, the growing of wheat has been “ghettoised” to distant portions of the country. It would be socially beneficial for a larger part of the populace to see and experience the growing of local wheat. A third benefit may come if the growing of local wheat were to become popular, and that would be an increase in genetic diversity and enhancement of qualities that are incompatible with industrial agricultural practice but may be of value nevertheless… like flavour.
Stuart Brown, Sharon, MA USA
It would be more environmentally simple just to cut down slightly on meat consumption – consumption which means vegetable protein is wasted on growing an animal to full size, on a high-protein diet, before slaughtering it.
As a childminder I encourage the children in my care to choose, grow and eat what appeals to them on the allotment I have. I would encourage them to grow their own wheat and then we could use it to make the pizzas they like cooking and eating so much.
Saran Andrews, Bedfordshire
Planting for the future: New rust resistant wheat seed on its way to farmers
United multinational efforts to develop and deploy rust resistant wheat varieties are making the world’s wheat crops more secure.
Photo: David Hansen, University of Minnesota
The red, blister-like postules on leaves and stems give it away: the field is infected by Ug99, a type of wind-borne pathogen known as stem rust that attacks wheat plants. Since its discovery more than a decade ago, Ug99 has held the agricultural world in suspense as governments and scientists rush to protect wheat crops. In 2008, several countries began producing seed of new, rust resistant wheat varieties for distribution to farmers. Agricultural experts hope these high-yielding varieties will be planted in farmers’ fields by 2011, providing a buffer against Ug99.
Stem rust rises again… and again
Stem rust is an old foe. Norman Borlaug, the late Nobel Peace Prize winner and father of the Green Revolution, battled this fungal disease in the 1950s. After years of painstaking plant breeding, he and his team endowed improved wheat varieties with rust resistance genes. The most popular source of resistance, gene Sr31, was later bred into most of the world’s wheat. For decades its resistance held and wheat crops flourished. Many thought stem rust was defeated and research and funding shifted to other priorities.
But now it is back. And mutating. Four new strains able to overcome previous forms of genetic resistance have crept into wheat fields, causing international alarm, according to Ravi Singh, CIMMYT distinguished scientist and geneticist/pathologist. “Ug99 and its four new variants now threaten major wheat growing areas in every continent,” says Singh. “Eighty percent of cultivated wheat varieties worldwide are susceptible.”
Since Ug99 appeared in Uganda in 1998 and overcame resistance genes, experts have feared the worst: massive global crop losses leading to increased food insecurity. Within a decade, its deadly spores had moved into Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen, and Iran. A damaging race of the Ug99 family has recently appeared in South Africa.
Getting resistant seed to farmers
In response, the world has rallied: scientists have sought new sources of resistance and joined in global initiatives to fight rust; national governments have sped seed multiplication and varietal testing and approval procedures.
Experts from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) (shown here) and the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) have performed a remarkable service by helping screen thousands of experimental wheat lines from breeding programs worldwide each year under severe, natural infections of Ug99 stem rust. (Photo: David Hansen, University of Minnesota)
Efforts are starting to pay off. The Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) was founded in 2005 and provides a key venue for the world’s wheat and rust experts to exchange information about the disease and its movements, as well as about resistant wheat lines. At a recent meeting, BGRI participants discussed progress by several countries in producing resistant seed. Sources included resistant lines from CIMMYT, from the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), and in some instances from their own breeding programs or commercial suppliers. According to reports, new stocks of resistant seed should be ready for distribution to farmers by 2011—significantly sooner than the 10 years it usually takes for a new variety to be released, tested, and made available.
The need for speed
The release of a new variety is usually slow and subject to tough criteria that vary from country to country. After being developed and selected in breeding programs, candidate varieties undergo years of tests. The best are moved into multiplications trials, where a larger amount is planted for seed production. To get Ug99 resistant seed to farmers more quickly, several countries are testing promising varieties and increasing their seed at the same time—an expensive approach, as only seed of the few varieties selected will finally be used.
The Seed and Plant Improvement Institute (SPII), Iran’s national wheat breeding program, has released five bread wheat and one durum wheat cultivars that are resistant to Ug99, says M.R. Jalal Kamali, CIMMYT-Iran senior wheat scientist. Pictured above is a seed multiplication plot of variety 514. Iran is expected to account for 95% of the Ug99 resistant wheat seed produced in seed multiplication efforts, according to Kamali.
In an initiative supported through the USAID Famine Fund, six countries (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Ethiopia, Nepal, and Pakistan) embraced this quicker production method and sowed 52 hectares with 11 varieties, producing nearly 145 tons of Ug99 resistant seed in the 2008-09 crop cycle. In the same growing season, Iran planted 34,000 hectares and produced 80,000 tons of Ug99 resistant wheat seed. Large-scale seed production continued into 2009-10 and combined the seven countries have sown over 47,000 hectares, anticipated to yield 118,000 tons of improved seed. If seed production continues as anticipated, Bangladesh, Egypt, and Iran will have enough Ug99 resistant seed to sow at least 5% of their national wheat area. One hectare of wheat produces enough seed to sow 20 hectares, so 5% is the safeguard threshold for replacing susceptible varieties in case of a Ug99 outbreak. Four additional countries will likely reach this target by the end of 2010.
Global arms race with a mutating fungus
So what is the difference between these new Ug99 resistant varieties and those of the past? Rust resistance has historically been based on major genes. Single major genes block entry of spores into plant tissue. This type of resistance is highly-effective in the short term, but also sets the stage for its own downfall, creating strong evolutionary pressure that favors more virulent rust mutants.
Minor genes offer partial protection. In this sense, they are harder to breed for, because their presence is less visible in field experiments. But most wheat experts agree they represent the safest path to crop security. “With minor genes, the disease it not eliminated, but its attack on the plant is slowed,” explains Singh. “Like the code for a combination lock, several minor genes in tandem in the same variety are hard for the pathogen to ‘decipher’ and provide more durable resistance. CIMMYT’s strategy has been to identify and breed minor genes into wheat varieties, as well as assisting partners in this challenging task.”
Widespread support saves the day
CIMMYT’s work to develop and spread stem rust resistant wheat varieties depends on support from the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative, USAID, USDA-ARS and USDA-FAS, GRDC-Australia, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, ICAR-India, SDC-Switzerland, the Syngenta Foundation, Fundación Produce-Mexico, and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development. This and all other CIMMYT initiatives benefit significantly from unrestricted donations.
Black harvest: the battle against wheat rust
Issue 27 of Cosmos, June 2009
by Elizabeth Finkel
A global scourge could devastate food supplies. Norman Borlaug has saved the world once before … and needs to again. This story is a finalist in the 2010 Eureka Award for Science Journalism
Nobel laureate who led Green Revolution dies
Space seeds come back to Earth
Preparing for doomsday
Search is on for climate change-resistant crops
Fungi can transfer chromosomes
NORMAN BORLAUG IS A HERO. Like the warrior Beowulf, subject of the Old English epic poem, Borlaug slew a monster, saved his world and lived to a ripe old age. Like Beowulf, this old warrior of science has had to climb back into armour to battle the rise of a new monster. And once again, the world is looking to him for salvation.
In 1970, Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize for saving hundreds of millions of people from starvation. The monster he slew was stem rust: a devastating fungus that has plagued the world’s wheat fields since Roman times. He did it by breeding a slew of powerful new varieties of wheat that could defend themselves against the scourge.
Yields doubled and tripled, ushering the Green Revolution across Asia and Latin America and averting the impending starvation of millions. Suddenly, food was bountiful. That victory was achieved 50 years ago in Mexico. The wheats he bred protected much of the world from the rust monster.
But now stem rust has awoken from a long sleep and is again threatening the world’s food supplies: a virulent new strain appeared in Uganda in 1999, and it is on the march across the planet. While humanity rested on its laurels, the fungus spread to Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan, then jumped the Red Sea to Yemen. In 2007 it reached Iran. Now, like a cobra, it is poised to strike the major breadbasket of Asia – the Punjabi plains of Pakistan and India.
If it strikes, crop yields will crash and millions will go hungry. It could not come at a worse time: the world’s food reserves are running low. Granary stocks worldwide once held enough to last 100 days; due to a combination of climate change hammering yields and the growing competition from biofuels, the global granary is now down to 30 days. It’s part of the reason why grain prices spiked in early 2008, triggering food riots from Haiti to Bangladesh.
“It’s a train wreck,” says Thomas Lumpkin, the director-general of CIMMYT, or Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maíz y Trigo (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre) in Mexico. Now add stem rust to this picture and it’s not a slow-motion train wreck, but a nuclear bomb ticking in the background. A major outbreak in Asia could empty global granaries overnight.
WHEAT SUFFERS FROM many diseases, but stem rust is the most ruthless – it gorges on the sugars bound to the grain and then erupts on the stem in rusty pustules. These then explode into vast red spore clouds that spread their destructive force across continents and oceans. In the 1950s, stem rust halved wheat yields in many U.S. states. In the 1970s, it crossed the Indian Ocean from Africa to wipe A$300 million off Australia’s wheat harvests.
But fundamentally it’s back to the old Malthusian problem, first outlined in 1798 by the English scholar Thomas Robert Malthus: booming populations eventually overwhelm their food supplies and face starvation. Today, the rate of global population growth is rising faster than our ability to produce food. Take a look at wheat: the average annual yield increase is less than 1% but, according to Lumpkin, the world needs a 1.5% increase each year just to keep up with consumption.
We have been slowly descending again into the Malthusian scenario faced by India and Pakistan in the 1960s – so you would think the world would be rallying to the emergency. They haven’t. Political leaders have forgotten the wisdom of Socrates: “No man qualifies as a statesman who is entirely ignorant of the problems of wheat.”
When the stem rust monster awoke in Africa in 1999, few had any memory of its menace. Those who could battle the threat – the world’s international agricultural research centres – are these days run by an army of threadbare foot soldiers relying on scatty intelligence and carrying minimal clout.
Their political masters and the global financers who trade in food had grown complacent in the years of plenty. Lumpkin told me, “As an agronomy professor at Washington State University, I taught about the glories of CIMMYT [where Borlaug fomented the Green Revolution]. When I arrived, I found ceilings that hadn’t been changed for 50 years and broken-down equipment.”
The warning cries of the world’s agricultural scientists were ignored. So in 2005, Borlaug, the old knight, trumpeted the alarm and again rode into battle. He was 91 when he convened the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative, a gathering of the world’s leading wheat experts from 40 countries, which met in Kenya.
There, he galvanised the disparate national and global agencies into a coalition of the willing. And he attracted US$26 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to begin the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat initiative – a global project co-ordinated by Cornell University in New York State to speed up the breeding of new resistant wheat varieties.
Borlaug is revered for many things: his skill as a wheat breeder, his pragmatic humanism, his unwavering focus on feeding the world, his internationalism. But not for his saintly disposition. A college wrestling champion, Borlaug is tough. His success in fomenting the Green Revolution was as much due to bull-headed determination as to his skills as a breeder. And he is fearless about wading into policy and politics. Which is just what this global battle needed.
IN MARCH 2009, Borlaug convened a second council of war in Mexico. Representatives of 200 organisations descended on Obregón City, and I joined them. Arriving by 25-seater plane from Los Angeles, the vastness of the desert below me was stupefying: it stretched for virtually the entire two-hour flight.
As we neared Obregón, the verdant patchwork quilt below came as a shock. The agricultural largesse is everywhere as you drive along the highway into town: giant grain elevator after giant grain elevator, vast cone-roofed grain silos, Corona breweries, bakeries, on and on. It’s astonishing to think that what is today a national breadbasket and a global agricultural Mecca was a godforsaken patch of rust-ravaged farmland only 60 years earlier.
That’s when Borlaug first visited the Yaqui Valley – the coastal plain the stretches from the Sierra Madre to the Sea of Cortez. Obregón is the main town. Borlaug was the chief pathologist of a project to help Mexico modernise agriculture and feed its people – a joint venture of the philanthropic Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican government.
His first mission was to bring stem rust under control. Across the country, the cruel fungus was turning golden wheat fields into wastelands of blackened stalks and shrivelled grains.
His eventual victory relied on a combination of skill, steely determination and the hand of fortune – “Princess Serendip,” as he called it. He protected the wheat the only way he could – by crossbreeding it to resistant varieties from around the world.
His instincts as a breeder told him that to protect wheat, he would need to do thousands of crosses to capture resistance genes. Not only was he trying to fortify wheat against stem rust, but also the troublesome leaf rusts which bring down yields by as much as a third. And of course there were plenty of other wheat diseases around such as Septoria and Fusarium.
Like a poker player, Borlaug was aiming for a perfect set, a royal flush of resistance genes. And like a poker player he was subject to the rules of chance. To increase those chances, he carried out a mind boggling 6,000 matings between different wheat varieties each year. That created tens of thousands of hopeful wheat progeny from which a few dozen were selected (see “A royal flush” on p52).
THROUGH THE SHEER FORCE of numbers and ‘a feel’ for the traits he was trying to capture, he succeeded in putting together a royal flush of rust-resistance genes. Plants such as Yaqui 50, bred in the Yaqui Valley in 1950, resisted stem rust for over 60 years.
Besides making wheat rust resistant, Borlaug also dwarfed his wheats. Yaqui 50, like all traditional wheats, reached to a man’s shoulders. That was fine when the wheat was scrawny. But as fertiliser and water fattened the grain, the plants got top heavy and fell over. The solution was to make a stockier plant.
The Japanese are famed for their horticultural miniatures and wheat is no exception. A dwarf wheat known as Norin 10 provided the genes to dwarf Yaqui 50. The famous semi-dwarf wheats, such as Penjamo and Pitic, were born. They sucked up nutrients and because there was little stalk the ears grew even fatter. Yields doubled and tripled.
Then Borlaug hit upon an idea. He first visited the Yaqui Valley in 1946 out of curiosity. His own research station was near Mexico City, some 2,000 km south of the valley. He visited a model agricultural research station that had been set up in the valley in the 1930s; what he found was a station in shambles and the local wheat farmers defeated by rust.
Borlaug wanted to help them; he was an Iowa farm boy after all. But he also glimpsed a way to help himself. At his research centre in the highlands near Mexico City, they planted wheat in the spring and harvested in summer. But in the baking heat of the Yaqui Valley, they planted in autumn and harvested in spring.
Borlaug realised he could just ‘shuttle’ seed from one place to the next and get two crops per year. It would cut down the seven or eight years required for his massive breeding program by half.
Traditional wisdom was against him: seeds were thought to need a ‘rest’ and breeders were supposed to breed plants for one environment only. But Borlaug ploughed ahead with his idea – against major opposition. His boss and other experts in the Rockefeller management vetoed the plan. Borlaug quit. His boss relented.
Borlaug’s intuition worked and delivered an unexpected dividend: not only did the ‘shuttle’ halve the normal breeding time, it produced truly international wheat. Seed that stayed on the shuttle had to be able to grow at two different altitudes, survive two different types of ecology and, remarkably, had to ignore the waxing and waning of the day length: at the Mexico City site, the days lengthened as the wheat matured while at Yaqui Valley the days shortened.
The Yaqui Valley shuttle provided for the future prosperity of Obregón. It also provided wheat that could be grown from Australia to Azerbaijan; that could foment a Green Revolution; and by freeing nations from food aid dependency, lay the foundations for building modern economies. As Borlaug told the meeting in Obregón, “The Yaqui Valley was the birth place of the Green Revolution.” It was fitting for this war council to convene here.
THE HIGH YIELD offspring of Yaqui 50 were wildly successful, and as part of the Green Revolution, ended up ended dominating wheat fields around the world. But breeders never rest. They’re always looking to improve wheat – to make it yield more, make it more pest resistant, more salt tolerant or produce better quality flour.
But every time they perform a cross to gain something new, they are also likely to lose something old. In this case, the thing they lost over time was the ‘royal flush’ that Borlaug had captured in the Mexican wheat.
Most breeders have relied on a single defensive gene against rust, known as Sr31. And that was just sweet temptation to a microbe. With its formidable mutagenic powers, it was only a matter of time before stem rust overwhelmed Sr31.
It was no surprise that it happened in East Africa. The rift valley countries of Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia grow wheat year round – in the valleys in winter and up on the escarpment in summer. So rust gets year-round lodgings. And even if the wheat varieties being planted are unwelcoming, rust can always find a few wild relatives to hole up in. Because rust never sleeps in such a place, the chances of developing a new resistant strain are high.
What was a surprise was that wheat breeder William Wagoire even recognised the red pustules growing on wheat stems in a test plot in Uganda. His generation had never seen stem rust. Wagoire sent a sample to Zak Pretorius’ lab at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa, who in 1999 confirmed that the pustules were indeed stem rust.
Most worryingly, he showed that this new strain, named Ug99 (for Uganda 1999), could overwhelm the main defence of much of the world’s wheat: Sr31. Across vast tracts of the Punjabi plain in Pakistan and India, in Kazakhstan, China, Canada, America and Australia, wheat is a sitting duck for Ug99.
AT OBREGÓN, THE COALITION of the willing met to discuss the progress of the battle. The main plan is to defend the world’s wheat by giving it back a royal flush of rust-resistance genes. They no longer have to do it the way Borlaug did: through brute force and feel. Today’s breeders have a short cut: they can virtually peer into the seed to determine the gene sets it carries.
Genes come naturally tagged by stretches of a unique sequence of DNA letters, like a barcode, and modern DNA labs can read those barcodes in a matter of days. The breeder need only shave a snippet off the seed and send it off. If the reading shows it carries a winning combination of resistance genes, the breeder can plant what remains of the shaved seed. With these shortcut techniques, CIMMYT has bred wheat carrying new sets of rust-resistance genes.
They have been tested against Ug99 in the heavily infested test plots of Njoro, Kenya, and the winning strains distributed across the world as part of a travelling wheat nursery. Breeders in Kenya, Iran, Pakistan and India have selected the babies they liked best and are busily multiplying them. They expect to have enough seed to replace their susceptible fields within three years.
But the mood at Obregón was far from breezy. There was a sense of relief that the world was getting together at last, but there was also fear that something sinister was brewing, and that victory was far from certain.
The weak link in the defensive chain is getting the resistant new seed into the fields to farmers. Poor farmers in Pakistan and Kenya traditionally save their seed – they don’t have the money to buy new seed varieties from the companies who will multiply the seed. And wealthier ones may be loathe to change varieties that, so far, are still providing handsomely.
In the U.S. for instance, “they would rather just spray fungicides”, says Brian Steffenson, a plant pathologist at the University of Minnesota. But that’s not a solution, he says. “Serious rust epidemics need heavy spraying, and that runs the risk of resistance to the chemicals. It’s not easy to develop new fungicides.” And it’s certainly not a solution for the poor farmers who farm most of the land across Asia and Africa. They can’t afford it.
ANOTHER SOURCE OF UNEASE is that there is a large blind spot when it comes to gathering intelligence about stem rust. After the severe U.S. rust epidemics of the 1950s, ‘trap plots’ were monitored across Africa to provide advance warning of stem rust. But as Jesse Dubin, a former associate director of CIMMYT pointed out, in the 1980s the funding to maintain them was cut.
Now the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is taking charge of rebuilding that surveillance, but monitoring millions of hectares of wheat fields across remote regions of Asia and Africa for rusty pustules on wheat stems is no easy task.
That’s Keith Cressman’s responsibility: his job is somewhat easier because he already runs the FAO’s trans-boundary locust forecasting service. This involved training local people to monitor and report locust sightings – if there are locusts in Somalia, the FAO will warn the neighbouring Ethiopians. Some of these trainees will now also monitor stem rust.
But reporting stem rust takes much more skill than reporting locusts. It’s not enough to train someone to detect rusty pustules on wheat stems, and equip them with a portable GPS and a mobile phone. Not all stem rusts are equal: some might be the plant’s equivalent of an annoying cold; others have killer flu potential.
The rust detective would have to try and sort this out using a panel of ‘canary’ wheats: for instance wheats that carry the Sr31 gene. If the rust grows on Sr31 wheat, that’s likely to be the killer variety.
Sounds simple, but it’s not. As Rick Ward, project coordinator for the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat at Cornell University told me, “reading the pustules is an art form”. And false alarms can have devastating consequences for global food prices and availability. With jittery futures markets paying close attention to Ug99, there is the potential to send grain prices soaring, causing the catastrophic hoarding of grain.
The diagnosis of a brewing Ug99 epidemic requires the skills of an expert plant pathology lab. And there are precious few of them: India and South Africa have them, but won’t accept foreign samples of stem rust. Neither will Australia’s elite lab at the University of Sydney’s Plant Breeding Institute in Cobbitty, New South Wales.
THE ONLY TWO PLACES where the rust detectives can send their suspects is to the USA’s Cereal Disease Laboratory at the University of Minnesota, in Saint Paul, or to Canada’s Cereal Research Centre at Winnipeg. “That’s pretty darn thin for a planet,” says Ward.
These countries are so frightened of Ug99, the labs will only test the spores in the heart of winter when there is little chance they can escape the lab. So if a virulent new strain of Ug99 is brewing in Pakistan right now, researchers won’t know for sure until the northern winter – which could be a whole year later.
The worst case scenario is that breeders may have already lost the arms race without knowing it: UG99 could have mutated to a form that will overwhelm the defences of seeds being multiplied. Ug99 is particularly shifty: it has already mutated once since it was detected in 1999: Kenya has a variety that resists both Sr31 and another key resistance gene, Sr24. The rust monster may be way ahead of the breeders.
“We’re in a very dynamic phase. All of a sudden the pathogen adapted – we don’t where it will end,” says Cobus Le Roux, a researcher at South Africa’s Small Grain Institute.
Only careful intelligence gathering can help the breeders stay ahead. “There’s unquestionably a problem with analysing rust [strains],” says Robert Park, director of rust research at the University of Sydney’s Plant Breeding Institute and leader of Tracking and Surveillance within the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat – a project with the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative that is funded by the Gates foundation. One of Park’s jobs is to help establish expert laboratories in the regions at risk – a goal that is about two years away.
Problem is, stem rust spreads like wildfire. If weather conditions are right (moisture and warmth) and if there is plenty of fuel (susceptible wheat), then the epidemic can rage out of control. “It’s a roll of the dice,” says Lumpkin.
FRAIL AND ONLY DAYS before his 95th birthday, Borlaug’s focus is unshakable. At the press conference, he hammered the need for better surveillance of stem rust.
Another journalist said to me, “I have never met anyone so ‘on message’.” It’s very much part of the Borlaug style, his marriage of science and humanism. And it’s a message that continues to inspire those around him.
“A lot of us who go into agriculture want to do something to help humanity. Borlaug is the giant that we hope to emulate,” Steffenson told me as we bussed along the road lined by granaries and criss-crossed by massive semi-trailers carrying grain.
It’s not just academics Borlaug has inspired. At the opening session of the conference, Theodore Crosbie, vice-president of Global Plant Breeding at Monsanto, the American multinational agricultural biotechnology giant, told delegates about meeting Borlaug 35 years ago. He was a student at Iowa State University, and Borlaug challenged him, “Why don’t you work on something that matters?”
“One conversation with Borlaug and you’re a changed man,” says Crosbie. Decades later, Crosbie was clearly chuffed to announce at Obregón that Monsanto was awarding US$10 million over five years to researchers in developing countries to improve wheat and rice yields.
Borlaug’s parting message to delegates was a refrain of his opening one: a plea for reviving the internationalism of agriculture. In his opening address, he recalled how years back, the farmers and scientists of the Yaqui Valley welcomed people of all languages, races and colours, as they came there to learn the ways of wheat. Faltering with emotion, he emphasised “that was the lesson they learned here”.
One of those was Abdul Mujeeb Kazi, who became one of CIMMYT’s most famous wheat breeders and is now a project director at the National Wheat Program in Islamabad, Pakistan.
At his parting speech Borlaug asked, “Why did it take so long [this time] to get good international co-operation?” Perhaps, as Kazi put it, “Ug99 may be a blessing in disguise – it has brought the international community together.”
“Our tasks are enormous, but do-able,” Borlaug said later. “So let’s get on with the job. There is no room for complacency.”
Elizabeth Finkel, a former biochemist, is a celebrated Melbourne-based science writer and a contributing editor of Cosmos. This story is a finalist for the 2010 Eureka Prize for Science Journalism.
A ‘time bomb’ for world wheat crop
The Ug99 fungus, called stem rust, could wipe out more than 80% of the world’s wheat crops as it spreads from Africa, scientists fear. The race is on to breed resistant plants before it reaches the U.S.
June 14, 2009|Karen Kaplan
The spores arrived from Kenya on dried, infected leaves ensconced in layers of envelopes.
Working inside a bio-secure greenhouse outfitted with motion detectors and surveillance cameras, government scientists at the Cereal Disease Laboratory in St. Paul, Minn., suspended the fungal spores in a light mineral oil and sprayed them onto thousands of healthy wheat plants. After two weeks, the stalks were covered with deadly reddish blisters characteristic of the scourge known as Ug99.
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Nearly all the plants were goners.
Crop scientists fear the Ug99 fungus could wipe out more than 80% of worldwide wheat crops as it spreads from eastern Africa. It has already jumped the Red Sea and traveled as far as Iran. Experts say it is poised to enter the breadbasket of northern India and Pakistan, and the wind will inevitably carry it to Russia, China and even North America — if it doesn’t hitch a ride with people first.
“It’s a time bomb,” said Jim Peterson, a professor of wheat breeding and genetics at Oregon State University in Corvallis. “It moves in the air, it can move in clothing on an airplane. We know it’s going to be here. It’s a matter of how long it’s going to take.”
Though most Americans have never heard of it, Ug99 — a type of fungus called stem rust because it produces reddish-brown flakes on plant stalks — is the No. 1 threat to the world’s most widely grown crop.
The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico estimates that 19% of the world’s wheat, which provides food for 1 billion people in Asia and Africa, is in imminent danger. American plant breeders say $10 billion worth of wheat would be destroyed if the fungus suddenly made its way to U.S. fields.
Fear that the fungus will cause widespread damage has caused short-term price spikes on world wheat markets. Famine has been averted thus far, but experts say it’s only a matter of time.
“A significant humanitarian crisis is inevitable,” said Rick Ward, the coordinator of the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
The solution is to develop new wheat varieties that are immune to Ug99. That’s much easier said than done.