UN confirms Wheat Killer in Yemen but Agriculture Ministry denies findings [Archives:2007/1042/Front Page]

April 16 2007

Amel Al-Ariqi
SANA'A, April, 15 ) Abdullah Al-Siani, director of plant quarantine in the Ministry of Agriculture expressed his surprise at the press release that the UN food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) issued on Thursday, in which it warned of the spread of “new and virulent fungus” that can attack many varieties of wheat in Yemen. He insisted that there is no official warning, statement, or survey revealing such a wheat infection.

“The Ministry of Agriculture is the only official authority in Yemen that can confirm such diseases, and as we haven't yet registered any case of wheat stem rust, we can not confirm this information” he stated, adding that the Ministry is now carrying out a survey to record any plant infection.

The Rome based agency warned of the outbreak of wheat stem rust (Puccinia graminis), also known as wheat black rust, which is capable of causing severe crop losses. It said that the infection has spread from East Africa to Yemen. The agency also said that a new pathogen, which first emerged in Uganda in 1999 and is therefore called Ug99, has been found in Yemen. The FAO pointed out that Ug99 strain is more virulent than the one found in East Africa.

It is estimated that as much as 80 percent of all wheat varieties planted in Asia and Africa are susceptible to this new strain. The spores of wheat rust are mostly carried by wind over long distances and across continents, according to the agency.

“Global wheat yields could be at risk if the stem rust spreads to major wheat producing countries,” said FAO Director-General Dr Jacques Diouf.

“The fungus can spread rapidly and has the potential to cause global crop epidemics and wheat harvest losses of several billion dollars. This could lead to increased wheat prices and local or regional food shortages. Developing countries that are relying on wheat and do not have access to resistant varieties will be particularly hit,” Dr Diouf added.

The FAO is urging affected countries, and countries at risk, to increase their disease surveillance, saying that Yemen in particular should be on the alert. Countries should step up field monitoring and training and prepare for direct control interventions in disease hot spots. “Most important, control measures in affected countries should include the introduction of more resistant wheat varieties and restricted planting dates to break the disease cycle.” said the FAO, referring to the ability of wind currents to carry spores great distances.

In the late 1980s, a virulent strain of yellow rust, a wheat disease similar to stem rust, emerged in East Africa and crossed the Red Sea into Yemen. It then moved into the Near East and Central Asia, reaching wheat fields of South Asia within four years. Major yellow rust epidemics were recorded with wheat losses of more than one billion US dollars.

Mohammed Shikh Numan, director of the Plant Disease Residence Unit in the Ministry of Agriculture, did not confirm or deny the FAO information saying that it is too early to declare such an infection without referring to the result of the ministry survey. He did add however that Yemen's wheat is suffering from rust but not the Ug99 type “which is more dangerous”. He also stressed that Yemen is awaiting results from samples of wheat rust disease it has sent to laboratories in the U.S. and Canada for further analysis. He said the “situation would be very risky if the tests show Ug99 infection”. Regions like Marib, Siwan, Sa'ada, Hajjah, Ibb and other areas where wheat are planted could all be under the Ug99 risk” he said.

Yemen plants more than 85000 hectares and produces more than 110000 tons of wheat, according to agricultural statistics of 2005.