I Guess Stockpiling Food is a Good Idea After All: UG99 Fungus May Wipe Out 90% of World Wheat Crop

And people laugh when I make my weekly Costco run:

The spores arrived from Kenya on dried, infected leaves ensconced in multiple 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 suspended the fungal spores in a light mineral oil and sprayed them onto dozens of healthy wheat plants each day. After two weeks, the stalks were covered with deadly reddish blisters characteristic of the scourge known as Ug99.

Nearly all of the plants were goners.

Crop scientists fear the Ug99 fungus could wipe out more than 80 percent of worldwide wheat crops as it spreads from its home base in eastern Africa. It has 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 inevitably will carry it to Russia, China and even North America — if it doesn’t hitch a ride with people first.

Uh. Like people mailing this spore to St. Paul?

“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.”

Although 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.

Here’s the key quote for you to remember:

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico estimates that 19 percent of the world’s wheat — which provides food for 1 billion people in Asia and Africa — is in imminent danger. American 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 prices to spike on world wheat markets. Famine has been averted thus far, but breeders 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. “We are at a stage where the equivalent of Hurricane Katrina is offshore and we are shoring up the dikes as fast as we can.”

The solution is to develop new wheat varieties that are immune to Ug99. That’s much easier said than done.

In other words UG99 will begin wiping out crops long before there is a solution, driving up food commodity prices and hitting America, already on target for grocery inflation for a variety of reasons, with even higher prices. Countries that rely on food aid will be hit particularly hard as wealthy countries scramble to ensure they have enough food to feed their own populations. If UG99 is spreading as fast as scientist think, this years harvest will be significantly smaller than anyone is expecting.

I have plenty of food and water squirreled away. Do you?