A resilient new strain of wheat fungus from east Africa is threatening to spread to the Middle East, Asia and the Americas and bring catastrophic crop damage, scientists said on Thursday.

Researchers said the new Ug99 form of stem rust could be spread by the wind and attacked many varieties of spring and winter wheat that were resistant to other strains of the fungus.

The strain could easily spread from Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia, which were the countries currently affected.

“Recognising the potential that this disease has…there’s almost no one exempt,” said Ronnie Coffman, head of Cornell University’s Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics.

Coffman led the group of scientists who conducted research into Ug99, and released a report on Thursday on how to fight its spread.

“What we have to achieve is to stop this disease from spreading to other parts of the world. Otherwise we are going to see a catastrophe,” said Masa Iwanaga, director general of Mexico’s International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT).

The scientists gave no firm numbers on potential damage, but said they feared an epidemic similar to those that caused major grain losses in North America in 1903, 1905 and 1950-54 and famine in Asia.

All those occurred before the cultivation of wheat varieties that were immune to stem rust, the report said.

Discovered in Uganda in 1999, the new strain could also be spread by travellers.

By George Obulutsa

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