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Rust Never Sleeps

March 03, 2011

In the 1960s, when I was a graduate student working in the wheat fields of Mexico with Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, he would lecture us about the dangers of wheat rust. “Listen to the wheat plants,” he would say.

Fast-forward to 2005. Norman Borlaug is standing in a Kenyan farmer’s field, eyeballing a disease-ridden field of wheat, and growing increasingly alarmed. Stem rust, an enemy that he and his colleagues had defeated 50 years earlier, was back.

Borlaug sent out a call to action to a global community that he said had “grown complacent.” Single-handedly, he inspired an international effort by the world’s best wheat and rust researchers to preempt this global epidemic.

The Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) project that was inspired by Borlaug, which has received important new funding from the UK Department of International Development (DFID) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation this week, is one of the world’s best examples of a partnership done right.

The DRRW’s goals are to serve the global wheat community, and improve farmers’ ability to feed their people, especially in the developing world.

The deadly new variant of stem rust that Borlaug saw in Kenya is known as Ug99. Discovered in Uganda in 1998 and named in 1999, we now know the strain is capable of defeating an estimated 90 percent of the world’s wheat varieties. Since 2005, it has spread to South Africa, traveled north across the Red Sea into Yemen, been found in the wheat fields of Iran, and could be headed toward Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and possibly Australia.

Stem rust can be a biological firestorm—a major threat to global food security.

In record time, a Mexican-based DRRW partner—the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT)—identified, multiplied, and delivered two resistant varieties to Kenyan farmers. Mexico was where Borlaug developed “miracle wheat” back in the 1940s and ’50s. In 2011, 15 other varieties of stem and yellow rust-resistant wheat have been introduced by national programs or are in the testing phase. 


DRRW partners in Kenya and Ethiopia are also central to the project’s success. Uniquely positioned to test the world’s wheat lines against Ug99 and related strains of stem rust, scientists are developing world-class screening facilities there. Inspired by Borlaug’s success, they are working with the world’s plant breeders to evaluate varieties of wheat and barley for promising new genetic sources of resistance for use in national breeding programs.

Since the DRRW project began three years ago, researchers have strengthened nurseries in Kenya and Ethiopia for screening wheat for rust resistance, distributed new resistant wheat varieties for testing and evaluation in 40 countries, and distributed Ug99-resistant seed for planting in the at-risk nations of Ethiopia, Kenya, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal.

If we continue to get it right, the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project will use global agricultural research and innovation to protect the world’s wheat crop indefinitely, fulfilling the vision of Norman Borlaug, who was an inspiration to us all in mounting this initiative. “Rust never sleeps,” was Borlaug’s constant admonition about stem rust.

By developing durable solutions to the problem of stem rust, we will strengthen the food security of the billions of people who depend on wheat for food, and honor the memory of a man who dedicated himself to preventing any child from dying of what he considered “needless” starvation.

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