Wheat rust’s threat to food security

By Staff Reporter | DAWN Mar 9, 2023

Malnutrition and food insecurity are major problems in Pakistan, particularly for women and children. Extreme flooding and other climatic changes have made the situation worse. According to economists, malnutrition costs Pakistan $7.6 billion annually in lost wages, medical costs, and decreased human capital productivity.

The main factor that ensures food security is the production of enough staple crops. The nation’s food security is ensured by wheat, which is the staple crop. In Pakistan, 98 per cent of people consume wheat every day.

About 22 million acres are used for the cultivation of wheat, which contributes 1.8pc of GDP and 7.8pc of the value added in agriculture. Wheat self-sufficiency has been a goal of every government and a constant challenge for agricultural experts and decision-makers. Since wheat is a strategic crop, any production shortfall could result in awkward circumstances, political unrest, a significant loss of foreign reserves, an increase in the price of wheat flour, and money shortages in vulnerable areas.

During the 2018–19 planting season, Pakistan produced a sizable surplus of wheat, and the harvest was also exported. But over the last few years, it has become a net importer. Pakistan’s goal of producing 28.90m metric tonnes (MMT) of wheat during the 2021–22 season has been missed due to high fertiliser costs and drought conditions in some regions of the nation. However, an estimated 29.5m tonnes were consumed in the previous year.

Although the nation’s foreign currency reserves are shrinking rapidly, expensive imports are being used to bridge the deficit. Further imports might be challenging, casting doubt on the nation’s food security.

Due to the effects of climate change, Pakistan has fallen short of its three-year wheat production target. Scientists claimed that the wheat crop was harmed by unusually high temperatures in March and April of 2022, while the weather in the two years before that was cold and favourable for wheat rust, a disease that caused low yields.

Wheat production must rise to keep up with rising demand because 33m tonnes of wheat will be needed in Pakistan by 2030. The projection was developed, taking population growth into consideration. This challenge is becoming even more difficult due to the emergence of rust disease, climatic changes, and rising fertiliser and water costs.

One of the most devastating diseases that can affect wheat crops is wheat rust, which seriously threatens Pakistan’s ability to feed its people. Numerous fungal pathogens can cause wheat rust, significantly lowering crop yields. The most prevalent type of rust in Pakistan is stem rust, which is brought on by the fungus Puccinia graminis.

The loss of wheat yield due to rust can be substantial, and it can significantly impact the food security of the region. Wheat rust has recently been responsible for a lot of severe damage.

A severe outbreak of wheat rust in 2018 is thought to have reduced Pakistan’s wheat yields by 20pc. In 2016 it was reported that the rust problem was causing losses of up to 40pc in some districts of Sindh. This can have serious economic and social implications for farmers and for the local economy.

A number of factors have contributed to the severity of the wheat rust issue in Sindh. Low soil fertility and hot, humid weather is the perfect environment for developing the disease. The spores of wheat rust can also travel great distances on the wind and are frequently spread through the air.

In a brief time, the rust spores disperse inside and outside the infected field. In an ideal environment, severe rusting happens 30–40 days after the initial infection. New pustules form every seven–10 days, and after the first infection, new pustules appear every seven–10 days. The onset of rust epidemics is significantly influenced by the weather.

Rust can thrive in environments that are cool at night, warm during the day (55–80°F), and have a lot of dew or a wet wheat canopy. The wheat canopy must have free moisture for six to eight hours for all rusts to infect it.

Because the pathogens’ strains (races) constantly change, controlling rust is a difficult task. For example, strains of varieties that were once classified as “resistant” have begun to display signs of susceptibility in recent years at various sites. The varieties typically only exhibited resistance for three to four years. Most of the time, crop rotations and modified tillage techniques are ineffective.

Fungicides or genetic resistance are two methods for controlling rust. When properly applied, the latter strategy has consistently shown to be the most cost-effective and environmentally friendly. Fungicides are costly, occasionally out of reach for smallholder farmers, and their long-term use raises questions about the environment and public health.

After rust outbreaks, farmers in rust-prone areas often increase the cultivation of resistant varieties, protecting their yields and enabling the short-term prevention of the pathogen’s spread.

Ultimately, wheat rust remains a major threat to food security in Pakistan, and it will require a concerted effort from the government, farmers, and the scientific community to address this problem. By implementing effective measures to control wheat rust, Pakistan can ensure that its food supply is secure and its citizens have access to adequate nutrition.

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