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The deadly pathogen that’s threatening your bread and other carbs

Learn more about wheat rust, a fungus that is putting the global food supply at risk.

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Bread. Pasta. Cereal. Beer. Your favorite wheat products could be at risk because of one virus: wheat rust. What is it, and why is it coming for our love of carbs?

Wheat rust is a wind-borne crop disease that can destroy entire wheat harvests anywhere in the world. Named for the rust-coated appearance it gives affected plants, wheat rust comes in three forms: stem rust, leaf rust, and stripe rust. All three of these forms can be traced back to a genus of rust fungus called Puccinia. To break down the disease to the simplest definition, wheat rust occurs when the pathogen enters the wheat plant through the leaf opening. It then starts taking the nutrients from the plant cells, effectively squashing the plant’s ability to grow or produce any grain — and putting farmers’ entire crop yields for the whole growing season at risk of infection.

While you might not have heard of this fungus in the news or in science class, humans have been fighting a quiet battle with wheat rust for thousands of years. (The ancient Romans even had a festival called Robigalia, dedicated to appeasing Robigus, their god of rust.) Wheat rust fungal spores can travel via wind across wheat fields, countries, and even continents. Wheat rust has been found in countries all around the world, including Ethiopia, China, Russia, Argentina, and the United Kingdom. Because wheat rust is a global issue, scientists, farmers, and innovators around the world have teamed up to try to fight it.

One of the most notable adversaries of wheat rust was Norman Borlaug. Nicknamed the “Father of the Grain Revolution,” Borlaug crossbred disease-resistant strains of wheat. By the 1960s, farmers began to implement Borlaug’s wheat-breeding approach to work around the world, protecting their wheat from rust for decades. That is, until 1999. Over time, the wheat rust fungus mutated into a new strain discovered in Uganda, called Ug99. Ug99 was a totally different type of fungus; as a result, almost all the wheat in the world was no longer immune to the disease. Wheat rust was back.

So who’s fighting it now? To help aid scientists and farmers, Waterwatch Cooperative in the Netherlands uses SAP to process massive amounts of data from satellites, weather readings, and drones to create its Crop Disease Alert app. The app’s satellite imaging-based data services make informed recommendations to farmers to better manage their crops and prevent disease. “SAP allows us to process large amounts of data in a sort of efficient way,” Ronald Lanjouw, the CTO of Waterwatch Cooperative, says. “In farming, in the peak of the growing season, five days is like an age, so you have to have the data as soon as possible.”

Find out more about how SAP and Waterwatch are helping create a more secure, sustainable global food supply here.

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