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New Wheat Disease Threatens Europe

A disease that struck wheat crops in Sicily destroying tens of thousands of hectares last year has been found to be a new and particularly destructive fungus that scientific modeling indicates may spread and infect Europe’s wheat this year.

Scientists at the Global Rust Reference Center (GRRC) associated with the Aarhus University in Denmark and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Texcoco, Mexico released alerts on February 2 warning of the new strain of stem rust, now named TTTTF. Particularly concerning is the fact that TTTTF has been shown to infect dozens of different strains of wheat under clinical tests, including durum wheat and varieties that are usually highly resistant.

Scientific models based on wind and weather patterns indicate that stem rust spores released last year in Sicily have likely been deposited throughout the Mediterranean. Although concerning, there is still a chance that the spores did not survive the winter.

By releasing public warnings before Europe’s wheat crop begins to grow, researchers are hopeful that the early alert will give farmers adequate warning to monitor fields for early signs of disease.

Compounding these challenges, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has also released separate warnings about two new strains of another wheat disease – yellow rust, that has been detected in Europe for the first time, and also in North Africa, East Africa, and Central Asia. The virulence of these strains is currently undetermined; however the strains appear to be closely related to strains that have caused previous epidemics in North America and Afghanistan.

“Timely action is crucial,” said Fazil Dusunceli, a plant pathologist at the FAO.

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