The ongoing spread of wheat rusts, a group of fungal plant diseases that stymy the production of the staple grain and other crops, is raising concern in Central Asia and the Middle East and sparking closer international collaboration to study, detect and prevent the threat from advancing further.

As part of this effort, FAO is expanding its partnership with the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) and the University of Aarhus' Global Rust Reference Centre to provide training on surveillance, resistance and management. Country surveys and sample analysis are also planned to better understand and manage the spread of this major menace to wheat production - which is posing a threat not just in Central Asia and the Middle East but in the world's major wheat producing areas as well.

A highly mobile plant killer

Wheat rust comes in three types -- yellow, stem and leaf rusts -- with yellow and stem rusts spreading widely in recent years. The rusts have the capacity to turn a healthy looking crop, only weeks away from harvest, into nothing more than a tangle of yellow leaves or black stems and shriveled grains at harvest.

The plant plague is highly mobile, spreading rapidly over large distances by wind, and can wreak havoc on crops if not tackled properly when first detected.

"Under conducive conditions, up to 80 percent or more of a farmer's yield can be lost due to rust infections, so building countries' capacity to detect them and better understand the ways the various strains of the disease spread is crucial to preventing epidemics and limiting losses," says Fazil Dusunceli, Plant Protection Officer at FAO.

The most well-known strain is Ug99, a highly potent form of stem rust first detected in Uganda in 1999 and which has since spread to 13 countries, some as far as Yemen and Iran. It has the potential to affect the majority of wheat varieties grown worldwide. Most recently it has been detected in Egypt, one of the Middle East's most important wheat producers.

Also cause for concern is a new strain of yellow rust, called Warrior, which has made its way from northern Europe to Turkey, affecting various countries along the way.

Building countries' capacity to detect and counter the threat

FAO, ICARDA and Turkey's General Directorate of Agricultural Research (GDAR), are collaborating with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the University of Aarhus and the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI), to train plant protection officers at a 10-day workshop starting this week in Izmir, Turkey.

Twenty-two officers from nine Central Asian and Near East countries with known cases of wheat rusts will be trained on rust surveillance, resistance and management during the workshop.

Once back in their countries, the officers will survey fields and send samples to University of Aarhus  in Denmark where they will be analyzed to determine how far and how quickly various strains of the disease are spreading.

Early action is essential to containing the spread of wheat rust, and planting resistant cultivars or timely fungicide sprays can prevent crop from catching the disease in the first place. But procuring these seeds in advance and getting a fungicide distribution chain up and running can be an issue, especially in developing countries.

Egypt is one example of a country whose high level of vigilance and resulting early action once Ug99 was recently detected allowed it to prevent widespread impacts without major costs, highlighting the efficacy of proper surveillance programs.

FAO, BGRI and IFAD, likewise, supported a research system in Turkey that was able to detect the spread of Yellow Rust to the country and set in motion a swift response to control the outbreak.

In addition to Central Asia and the Middle East, FAO is also engaging with countries across Eastern Africa, where new strains of stem rust have been detected in Ethiopia and Kenya, to develop a comprehensive regional response. This includes supporting surveillance and building capacity in Eritrea and Ethiopia to facilitate rapid responses to newly detected strains.