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$40M grant to fight wheat pathogen that threatens global food security

The United Kingdom's Department for International Development (DFID) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced today that they will invest $40 million in a global project led by Cornell to combat deadly strains of Ug99, an evolving wheat pathogen that poses a dangerous threat to global food security, particularly in the poorest nations of the developing world.

The five-year grant to the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) project at Cornell will support efforts to identify new stem rust-resistant genes in wheat, improve surveillance, and multiply and distribute rust-resistant wheat seed to farmers and their families.

"We cannot overstate the importance of this for addressing the causes of poverty, hunger and disease in the developing world," said Ronnie Coffman, Cornell professor of plant breeding and genetics and director of DRRW. "Against the backdrop of rising food prices, and wheat in particular, researchers worldwide will be able to play an increasingly vital role in protecting wheat fields from dangerous new forms of stem rust, particularly in countries whose people can ill afford the economic impact of damage to this vital crop."

First discovered in 1998 in Uganda, the original Ug99 has also been found in Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen and Iran. A Global Cereal Rust Monitoring System at the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggests it is on the march, threatening major wheat-growing areas of Southern and Eastern Africa, the Central Asian republics, the Caucasus, the Indian subcontinent, South America, Australia and North America.

"We hope other governments and donors will follow the U.K.'s lead and increase investments to provide small-scale farmers with the tools they need to improve their yields so they can feed their families and overcome poverty," said Sylvia Mathews Burwell, president of the Global Development Program at the foundation.

The new grant will allow Cornell to build on international efforts to combat stem rust -- particularly Ug99 and its variants. Among the university's partners are national research centers in Kenya and Ethiopia, the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center and the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas in Syria. The FAO and advanced research laboratories in the United States, Canada, China, Australia, Denmark and South Africa also collaborate on the project. The DRRW project also involves more than 20 leading universities and research institutes throughout the world, and scientists and farmers from more than 40 countries.

As part of the agreement, DFID will contribute some $15 million to the DRRW, and the foundation will contribute $25 million over the next five years.

"It is important that public and private institutions work together to develop long-term, sustainable and effective solutions to make life better for the world in which we live," said Cornell President David J. Skorton.

In the 1950s, a fatal strain of wheat stem rust invaded North America, ruining 40 percent of the spring wheat crop. Scientists then developed high-yield rust-resistant varieties that helped launch the Green Revolution. But 50 years later, virulent new strains of the pathogen emerged unexpectedly in Uganda, putting most of the world's wheat at risk.

Two other rusts pose threats to wheat -- leaf and stripe, or yellow rust. Stem rust, of which Ug99 is a variant, is the most feared because it can quickly lead to the loss of an entire harvest.

Since 2008, when the DRRW project was first funded with $26.8 million from the foundation, researchers have distributed new resistant wheat varieties for testing and evaluation in 40 countries; strengthened nurseries in Kenya and Ethiopia for screening wheat for vulnerability to rusts, and distributed nearly five tons of Ug99-resistant seed for planting in the at-risk nations of Ethiopia, Kenya, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.

Initially called to arms by Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug, the DRRW works closely with the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative on a global strategy to avert agricultural disaster for wheat.

Linda McCandless is associate director of communications, International Programs, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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