Cornell gets $26.8 million from Gates Foundation to study wheat stem rust

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ITHACA, N.Y. — Cornell has been awarded a $26.8 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to launch a broad-based global partnership to combat stem rust, a deadly wheat disease that poses a serious threat to global food security.

Wheat, which is one of the world’s primary food staples, accounts for about 30 percent of the world’s production of grain crops.

Scientists estimate that 90 percent of all wheat varieties planted around the globe are susceptible to the virulent new wheat stem rust type, known as Ug99.

Vulnerable regions

More than 50 million small-scale farmers in India rely on wheat for their food and income; other vulnerable regions include Pakistan, East Africa, China, the Middle East and North Africa.

The Gates Foundation-funded partnership, the new Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat
project, will bring together 15 institutions to combat the emergence of deadly new variants of stem rust that can spread quickly, reducing healthy wheat to broken, shriveled stems.

The partners will focus on developing improved rust-resistant wheat varieties to protect resource-poor farmers, as well as consumers from catastrophic crop losses.

Ronnie Coffman, a Cornell professor of plant breeding who is director of international programs at Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, revealed the grant at a meeting at wheat research facilities in northwest Mexico used by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.

Leaders

Coffman will direct the consortium of global partners while Rick Ward, previously a wheat breeder with the improvement center and Michigan State University, has been hired by Cornell as the project coordinator.

“The rust pathogens recognize no political boundaries, and their spores need no passport to travel thousands of miles in the jet streams.

“Containing these deadly enemies of the wheat crop requires alert and active scientists, strong international research networks and effective seed supply programs,” said Nobel laureate Norman E. Borlaug, who developed the “green revolution” wheats beginning in the 1940s and is credited with bringing radical change to world agriculture and saving hundreds of millions of lives.

“Containing these deadly enemies of the wheat crop requires alert and active scientists, strong international research networks and effective seed supply programs.”
Norman E. Borlaug

Nobel laureate

Borlaug, who was in Mexico for the grant announcement, continued, “The new wheat project is a critical component in building an effective research and development response to the current stem rust threat, and can help avert a global rust pandemic that can rob tens of millions of tons from production.”

Awareness

World awareness of the highly feared wheat disease is largely due to Borlaug’s advocacy, most recently through the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative, which will work closely with the new wheat project.

The program will enlist the Ethiopian Institute for Agricultural Research and the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute to be key research sites to develop new resistant varieties, in collaboration with scientists at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Area in Syria and the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.

The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization and advanced research laboratories in the United States, Canada, China, Australia and South Africa will also collaborate on the project.

Gates Foundation

The Gates Foundation has to date committed more than $700 million in grants as part of a broad agricultural development strategy aimed at providing millions of small farmers in the developing world with tools and opportunities to boost their productivity, increase their incomes and build better lives.

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