Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Wheat Rust: A Threat to the Afghan Bread

Wheat Cropping Systems in Afghanistan Central Highlands. Lal, Ghor. (c) 2015
Farmers in the Afghan Central Highlands depend on wheat as their main source of calories. Wheat is the key ingredient to make naan and other products that keep rural families somewhat nourished through the winter months.

There are two types of wheat cropping systems: irrigated and rain-fed. The irrigated wheat crops abound in the narrow valleys, usually intercropped with potatoes and fodder crops.  Wealthy farmers own this fertile land and they tend to produce surplus grain. Poorer farmers plant rain-fed wheat on mountain slopes in late fall. Dependent on the snowmelt, ground moisture retention, and sparse rain showers, rain-fed wheat is a lot more susceptible to changes in weather patterns and voracious livestock.  Rain-fed wheat also has lower yields and it's usually grown by replacing natural vegetation that would otherwise preserve a healthy watershed.

These problems, however, are minor compared to the potential impact of the “polio of agriculture” - Wheat Rust (UG99). Named after being identified in Uganda in 1999, this fungal infection affects wheat crops, leaving the stems with scaly red pustules. Farmers affected by the ‘rust’ could lose up to a third of their crops. For a region where farmers are subsistence or below subsistence, the rust's impact could be devastating for the family diet.

Cow and Donkey  Traditional Wheat Thresher. Lal, Ghor (c) 2015 
Carried by the wind, billions of spores can travel miles virtually unstoppable. In 2008, UG99 hit Iran, possibly coming from Yemen.  While the border between Iran and Afghanistan is close to 1,000 km according to the Rust Tracker, UG99 hasn't trespassed into Afghan territory to date. Unfortunately, it's a matter of time until the spores find an adequate host and establish a new home in the Central Highlands.

Decades of war has left research institutions and extension services underfunded. In the district where I'm based, the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL), has three extension workers and one motorcycle to cover about 400 communities. The NGO community has little understanding about the formal and informal mechanisms for seed security. In other words, we don't know where and how farmers access and manage their seeds, particularly for the less-profitable rain-fed wheat.

All these factors leave the country very ill-prepared for a potential attack of UG99. Hopefully, by the time that happens, research from CGIAR centers (CIMMYT and ICARDA in particular) will assist in the cultivation of new rust-resistant varieties, ready to be deployed throughout the country. -As they say here - Inshallah.

To learn more about Wheat Rust check out this excellent video from the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative: