Mzansi Agriculture Talk

Agriculture

Managing plant diseases may determine your breakfast

The United Nations (UN) has assembled a team agronomists, crop, and plant scientists to work on developing disease-resistant varieties and “to track the path of deadly plant pathogens.”

Pathogens are bacterium, virus, or other microorganism that can cause diseases, and wheat has been identified as one of the crops highly to contain and spread the virus.

According to the UN, tracking these paths will “help keep our crops and plants free from disease and ensure a healthy food supply.”

It was widely accepted among agronomists and plant scientists that the biggest threats to global wheat supply was the disease wheat stem rust.

“Infections can be seen by spots on the stem and leaves that have rust-colored powdery spores in them. These spots affect the plant by reducing the plant’s ability to photosynthesize. This reduces the number and size of the wheat kernels” said the UN.

According to Peiter Smit, Chair of the Agronomy Division at the South African National Seed Organization (SANSOR), there has been a ‘significant decrease in volume of areas dedicated to planting of wheat.’

“Although significant strides have been made towards increasing the yield of wheat in South Africa over the past 30 years, yield increases seem to have stagnated over the last 10 years. Modelling is indicating an increasing consumer demand for wheat products.”

South Africa at last count was a net wheat importer with an estimated 300 000 tonnes of wheat imported annually. While there was no casual relation between the disease threat and wheat decline, the capacity to develop wheat resistant varieties was put into the spotlight. 

If there were no new wheat varieties developed, it could in the longer term impact South Africa’s wheat-producing provinces; Western Cape (winter rainfall), Free State (summer rainfall) and Northern Cape (irrigation).

The UN panel of scientists observed that the rust spores could travel long distances, further spreading the disease quickly throughout Africa.

“Currently, it threatens to wipe out more than 80% of existing wheat varieties. Food security in developing countries is largely dependent on wheat” the UN said.

Simply emphasized, if not contained, it could affect consumer breakfast dishes like cereal, bread, pancakes, biscuits and muffins and impair consumers health. 

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