RUST NEVER SLEEPS
The developer of the “Green Revolution” in agriculture, Norman Bourlag was fond of this quote as a warning to researchers and growers about the constant threat of wheat rust. This is a fungal disease which affects the stem of the growing wheat plant, depriving it of fluid transport and eventually killing the growing plant. It has been around forever, but in many different forms, and plant breeders strive to out-wit the rust by breeding and using strains of rust resistant wheat. The latest GM technology has been employed in the fight against rust, and seemed to be successful until Nature again outwitted the researchers and breeders and a new strain of rust emerged in Uganda in the late 1990`s, known as Ug99.
This new strain has begun to spread and is causing some alarm as it appears to be spreading to south Asia. It has already spread from Uganda to Kenya where it devastated crops and to Eritrea and Ethiopia and has been found in Iran and Azerbajan.
The bad news is that new mutant strains of Ug99 have already been discovered in South Africa and it is infecting the newly created supposedly resistant strains of wheat, which have been urgently bred-up by the DRRW (durable rust resistance in wheat) program, heavily funded by the UK government and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. The DRRW has thrown large amounts of money into the program, and in the same manner as the whole Green revolution, the money has been used on artificial fertilizers and fungicide, which is a non sustainable approach, and is already coming undone as Nature outwits the singularity of such methods. Larger and corporate farms in South Africa for example have been able to reduce losses due to being constantly updated and due to the availability of controls, notably fungicides. All other African farmers, who tend to be small landholders (80% in Ethiopia), are subject to the “wagg” however as none can afford the cost of fungicides. “Folicur” is the fungicide of choice here, but it casts US$37/litre which covers a hectare, but must be spayed 3 times per season.
Apart from the cost, Folicur is registered as “Environmentally hazardous” is toxic to fish and aquatic organisms, could harm the unborn, irritates the eyes and skin, harmful if swallowed and is a suspected endocrine disruptor. As well as the initial purchase price, the fungicide requires the use of protective clothing, hardly available to small scale farmers, but also requires a special nozzle for application, again probably not easily available (except from the corporation)and not affordable for the small scale farmer. So the hidden costs exacerbate the already unaffordable purchase price, not to mention the environmental costs.
An overview of the situation has to ask about the whole green revolution practice of growing wheat outside its environmental range. The fact that this new exotic rust, which seems able to mutate rapidly originated in Uganda and rapidly spread to Kenya would seem to indicate that the environment in those places favours the development of fungi and is the reason wheat was never grown there traditionally. This idea is supported by the rapid mutation of the rust, again a characteristic of an environment where fungi are eco-dominant, an environment which is clearly unsuited to a cereal susceptible to fungal attack, as Wheat is well known to be.
The corollary however is that once it has found a susceptible host and outwitted its inherent immunity, even rapidly mutated to cement its dominance, the rust then is free to spread as a wind-borne vector, up the great rift valley to Eritrea and Ethiopia, both heartlands of wheat dispersal and growth. This is an eco-disaster and it can be claimed only occurred because of the practice of growing Wheat outside its environmental range. The factors which select for fungal dominance of this kind, are heat and moisture, “damp-heat”, predominant in these kinds of ecosystems, but the moisture component notably absent in the environment of the wheat heartlands.
This may be an ethno-centric aspect of the “green revolution”, born in laboratories of advanced 1st world cultures, to “do good” in less technologically advanced cultures. Is it benign but misguided? The native, local and appropriate cereals of hot-moist ecosystems are usually the millets and rices which are not susceptible to the “waggs”, or very much less so and on a manageable scale. But millet is not as fashionable as wheat and of course does not produce the culinarily-favoured products of wheat…risen breads and pastries, which as foods of the dominant societies are seen as more desireable. The inaffordability of the chemical/technical inputs of the “green revolution” for small farmers, who comprise the majority of African farmers, was the reason for the lack of success of the initial green revolution initiatives there. Coupled with what may be eco-incompatibility of the actual food sources favoured by the western researchers, based on inappropriate ethnocentric-culinary choices of actual crops promoted, the situation may be going from bad to worse.
Another interesting aspect of the new rust “wagg” is its ability to also infest another eco-inappropriate cereal (for Africa), Oats. If the “wagg” could be blown into Europe by favourable winds, it could cause havoc in the new warmer (with eco-inherent damp)climates, not only on Oats, but on European wheat crops. The eco-incompatibility of crops such as wheat in warm-humid climates has caused this new rust and the practice is clearly dangerous as it threatens the rest of the world as well. It is also borne of linear and singular thinking which is a hallmark of Western science, and is clearly not applicable to the dynamism of ecosystems.
It is no surprise really that this new rust originated in Uganda and proliferated in Kenya. Apart from the unsuitable environmental conditions for growing wheat, Kenya is an interesting case study of the effects of high-tech agriculture on a developing society. Kenya has only 3% of its original forest left, so is well cleared. Biodiversity is celebrated in official literature, but all development is “bigger farms, more machinery and fertilisers and GMO seeds”. This sounds like the birthplace of resistant organisms, hunted from original niches and on the lookout for new hosts to infect. What better than hot-house flowers such as Wheat, and of course the infecting agents have the virulence characteristic of equatorial climates…nothing like the climate in the heartlands of wheat.
“Transformation in Africa needs not more large scale industrial farm production, but small farmers practising a multi-functional agro-ecosystem approach.”
Although this approach is lost on corporate farmers as it clearly is not a monopolistic profit generating one,(“ private companies will not invest time and money in practices that cannot be rewarded by patents and which don’t open markets for chemical products or improved seeds”). UN statistics reveal that “yields are up 214% in 44 projects in 20 countries” using agro-ecological farming techniques…. “far more than any GM crop has ever done”. Married to the statistic that “between 45% and 50% of all human emissions of global warming gases come from the current form of food production” , and from an independent source that “industrial agriculture was by far the biggest source of climate-disrupting emissions of greenhouse gases” an interesting picture of world agriculture emerges. The same UN report, recently issued (2011), argues that “An urgent transition to eco-farming is the only way to end hunger and face the challenges of climate change and rural poverty”.
As an interesting corollary, the seeming compassion of Bourlag and his green revolution imperative, is offset by the use of food, particularly Wheat in futures trading. The reason Wheat prices have soared recently is purely to do with price speculation. Wheat prices jumped 70% in 2010, when global wheat stocks were stable. Price movements in food are no longer simply subject to supply and demand, as agricultural commodities are attracting excess liquidity in international markets, as other factors “far less transparent and constantly changing” are playing a greater role in determining prices. Food markets have become entwined with financial and energy markets which are highly volatile. Billions of dollars are now made by speculators who have moved on from stock market crashes to find new sources of investment in the “food bubble” which has created record prices, “starving millions and de-stabilising countries”. The recent unrest in Egypt and the middle-east has a direct cause in food prices and supply, largely caused by the Russian federations move to restrict wheat imports, which was in turn an initiative of the speculators, as Russia has huge stocks of grain. This was done so that speculators could get out of low cost contracts with Egypt for example, and re-negotiate more profitable deals.
This is of course in concert with already unstable political situations which seem to require only a small trigger(such as an increase in the price of staple foods) to initiate social friction.
The green revolution initiatives can then be seen in a new context of what is becoming popularly known as “vampire squid economics”. Bourlags undoubtedly well-meaning initiatives are simply sabotaged by those aspects of big business which flourish through futures trading and speculation on speculation. Growing and consuming Wheat as a local phenomena should short-change the Squid, and has become a very political act, besides being highly appropriate in almost every other sense.