This Week's Movie-Plot Threat: Fungus

I had been wondering whether to post this, since it’s not really a security threat—there’s no intelligence by the attacker:

Crop scientists fear the Ug99 fungus could wipe out more than 80% of worldwide wheat crops as it spreads from eastern Africa. It has already jumped the Red Sea and traveled as far as Iran. Experts say it is poised to enter the breadbasket of northern India and Pakistan, and the wind will inevitably carry it to Russia, China and even North America—if it doesn’t hitch a ride with people first.

“It’s a time bomb,” said Jim Peterson, a professor of wheat breeding and genetics at Oregon State University in Corvallis. “It moves in the air, it can move in clothing on an airplane. We know it’s going to be here. It’s a matter of how long it’s going to take.”

Posted on June 19, 2009 at 2:03 PM29 Comments


anonymous canuck June 19, 2009 2:51 PM

It’s a disaster movie plot. Kind of new age, not old school like Irwin Allen.

Or a stupid aggressor move plot. Let’s unleash the unstoppable plague on our enemies. That’ll teach em!

Fred P June 19, 2009 3:04 PM

I’m not clear that this is a movie-plot threat. This really is a prooven former threat to agriculture, and it’s causing problems elsewhere in the world. It appears that it could thrive here, and Wheat is really a major source of food for the world.

This sounds a lot more like innoculation of an important species against a disease than firing LAW rockets into a dam, at least to me.

Mind you, at least the article is using scare tactics (80% is far larger than the likely 5-10%) , but the idea of making varieties of wheat resistant to a suspected threat sounds like a pretty good idea to me.

Marc B. June 19, 2009 3:11 PM

That’s a simple FUD strategy by Monsanto and its ilk. Raising fear to sell their GMO wheat seeds.

A Nonny Bunny June 19, 2009 3:25 PM

@Fred P

Most of our crops are essentially monocultures, so I’m not sure whether 5-10% is really more likely than 80%.

For example the potato blight that caused the Irish famine, caused crop losses as high as 50%.
And the fungus Black Sigatoka has caused banana production in eastern Africa to drop by over 40%

Jens Alfke June 19, 2009 3:59 PM

This is real. New Scientist’s recent article began:

“‘This thing has immense potential for social and human destruction.’ Startling words – but spoken by the father of the Green Revolution, Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, they are not easily dismissed. …
“The famines that were banished by the advent of disease-resistant crops in the Green Revolution of the 1960s could return, Borlaug told New Scientist.”

As I understand it, what they’re worried about now isn’t so much the destruction of industrialized nations’ wheat crops, but those of third-world countries.


Fred P June 19, 2009 4:18 PM

@A Nonny Bunny-

There are other defenses against fungi; specifically fungicides. A 40% crop destruction in the U.S.A. is unlikely, never mind 80%. The 5-10% are taken from the last three rust fungus attacks on the U.S.A.’s wheat.

However, obviously, highly resistant varieties are going to be better (and cheaper in the long run) than continual fungicide sprays.

Finally, the ultimate defense is growing something else. Rice, for example, is very unlikely to take up a wheat fungus.

12345 June 19, 2009 5:17 PM

there’s no intelligence by the attacker

Funguses behaviour can be modeled with predator-pray models from biology, which also apply to “intelligent” attacker-defender scenarios. I don’t think this is a safety threat.

Roxanne June 19, 2009 6:04 PM

Yeah, fungus and molds are going to destroy us long before anything else. I mean, how many elm trees have you seen lately? Chestnuts were a major food crop on the east coast until about a hundred years ago. And bananas are threatened as well.

If something attacks maize aka corn, we won’t have much left to eat.

Chris Samuel June 19, 2009 7:14 PM

Sadly it appears that very few of the commenters have read the original article, or they would have realised that the word “security” was not used once in it.

It’s just a science article about a wheat rust that is spreading around the world to which our commercial strains of wheat have no resistance.

This is itself is nothing unique, we’ve already lost our main banana strain once (Gros Michel, wiped out in the 1960’s) due to genetic impoverishment and the current Cavendish banana is currently getting wiped out by another strain of Panama Disease.

It’s our own fault, we (as consumers) have demanded all the fruit in the stores to look the same so the pressure is on the growers to make it so, and that means continually selecting for genetic similarity and not diversity, which you need for disease resistance.

Jake K. June 19, 2009 7:25 PM

Crop diseases are nothing to laugh at. I don’t know if 80% is possible, but the fact that it’s virulent against Sr24 and Sr30 is very worrying. How much slack do we have in terms of grain stores?

@Fred P, fungicides aren’t a magic bullet:
The potential commercial use of fungicides for control of stem rust (Puccinia graminis) of wheat was assessed in field experiments at two sites. Foliar sprays containing either triadimefon or propiconazole were the most effective in reducing disease severity. Chlorothalonil was effective only when applied at an early stage of disease development and where stem rust was not severe in control plots. Dichlone, fenarimol, nuarimol and 2-(thiocyanomethylthio) benzothiazole did not significantly reduce stem rust severity at either site. Even though treatments were applied at an early stage ofthe disease epidemic at one site, disease control on heads, peduncles and sheaths did not exceed 63,36 and 19%, respectively, with any treatment. Increases in grain yield and density, of up to 0.27 t/ha and 8.6 kg/hectolitre, respectively, were barely sufficient to cover the cost of treatment.

Fungicides have the same resistance problem as pesticides and antibiotics.

Clive Robinson June 20, 2009 2:37 AM

@ Fred P,

“Finally, the ultimate defense is growing something else. Rice, for example, is very unlikely to take up a wheat fungus.”

Hmm have you tried growing rice or wheat?

Rice has also been problematical via patents and other natural side effects of it’s farming.

However one of the problems with wheat is it is mans first attempt at genetic engineering (via cross breading selection) and the end result is something like 2% of the population is intolerant of it.

bf skinner June 20, 2009 7:34 AM

there’s no intelligence by the attacker

But a threat vector doesn’t require intelligence or intent to need security controls does it? (this is why everything is about security; reduce risk)

We plan our controls for regional disaster and there’s no proved intellect behind tornado’s, floods or hurricanes.

Chris Samuel June 20, 2009 8:36 PM

Oh, I wasn’t saying it isn’t a food security issue (as in the security of supply), just that it’s unfair to characterise it as a movie plot security threat (which are generally intentional attacks by a human agent).

Clive Robinson June 21, 2009 12:02 PM

@ Chris Samuel,

“just that it’s unfair to characterise it as a movie plot security threat (which are generally intentional attacks by a human agent).”

Actually the deliberate infection of the food supply ia a real movie plot.

It stared Telly Savalis as the “baddie” (Ernst Bloefeld) and had Joanna Lummly as one of the girls, in the film version of the James Bond 007 book “On Her Majisty’s Secret Service”.

Jon P June 22, 2009 4:06 AM

Does there need to be an intelligent attacker for it to be a security issue? I’m thinking of things like the design of software and processes to ensure sensitive data isn’t accidentaly leaked or published to the outside world. Still security, no attacker.

If one considers this blog as “Bruce’s List of Things To Be Afraid Of” then it seems quite appropriate.

Fred P June 22, 2009 10:54 AM

@Clive Robinson

Nope; only corn (in relatively small amounts), and it’s been decades.


I realize that rice and wheat are different as far as climate, and farming techniques are concerned. My point is more that wheat isn’t the only possible crop than that rice is an excellent substitute.

@Jake K-

Good point.

Peter June 22, 2009 11:37 AM

I’ve been following this for the past year. It is a serious problem because it is now in a region where 25% of the world’s wheat crop is grown (IR/IQ/IN and the ‘stans). And for 7 of the last 9 years, the world grew less wheat than was produced. Prices in rice and wheat went crazy over the winter of 2007/2008 with riots in many countries.

UG99 reduces yields in infected plants by about 80%. The spores look like dirt. All it would take to destroy US wheat production is for 1 dirty boot coming back from IQ/AF/PK to bring back spores.

Raising fear to sell their GMO wheat seeds.
Except that there are no strains of GMO wheat that are resistant to this.

One book to read on our terrible dependence on a few strains of food crops is Altered Harvests. Our massive subsidies of corn (maize) is a direct result of the corn blight in the early 70s that wiped out 25% of the crop one year. Seed producers over-relied on something called “texas male sterile cytoplasm” (TMSC is a fancy name for a strain of corn that has sterile male flowers, so that one didn’t need to hire teenagers to detassle [cut the flowers off the top of the plant] during the summer months). Consequently, a known strain of blight (that TMSC was very susceptible to) spread all over the US one summer because about 3/4 of the grain crop had TMSC genes. If the weather hadn’t broken, it could have reduced the US corn crop by 80% that year. Instead, it was just 25% and the protest marches in DC that hit the news weren’t antiwar protesters, they were housewives and farmers.

World wheat production stats:
Pay attention to the column titled “World ending stocks.” When that column is lower than the previous year’s number, then that means the world as a whole used up more wheat than was grown. The 2009 number is an estimate.

kangaroo June 22, 2009 2:37 PM

Chris: we (as consumers) have demanded all the fruit in the stores to look the same

I don’t recall requesting that. I doubt most people want less variety in their food, rather than more!

I’d guess this is more a function of production and transportation costs than consumer demand. If all your bananas are basically clones, the packing & transport is much more predictable than having it vary by season, region and even particular source.

Always blaming the “consumer”, as if you could actually model that object as an intelligent and active participant. As soon as you reduce a player to a “consumer” or a “human resource” — you’ve already confirmed that they aren’t independent agents.

paul June 22, 2009 10:10 PM


Perhaps consumers haven’t explicitly demanded it, but stores find that they tend to sell more produce if it’s symmetrical instead of lumpy, relatively uniform in size instead of outsize next to tiny, smooth-skinned instead of bumpy and apparently blemished. There have been huge education campaigns trying to sell people oranges with minor scars from organic culture instead of pristine pesticide-slathered versions, odd-shaped heirloom tomatoes instead of perfectly round factory types and so forth, but it’s an uphill battle.

And although modern database systems could probably cope with millions of classifications of slightly different grades of produce, with different contents for each shipment, I’m not sure people’s brains would do as well. We like to reduce cognitive load.

Bill June 23, 2009 3:24 AM

The distinction is pretty clear, not every loss event is a security problem.

For instance the difference between ‘safety’ and ‘security’ is that the former is concerned with natural or accidental loss events, the latter malicious loss events.

Incidentally, to veer off at a tangent, this is why I do not consider DR/BCP as a Security responsibility, at odds with ISC2 who include it within the CISSP CBK.

Ok, back on track…Chytrid Fungus disease is killing off heterogeneous amphibians worldwide, so by analogy a fungus could make short work of a (near) monoculture.

The dominant Gros Michel banana was wiped out by the Fusarium Oxysporum fungus, and our modern less susceptable Cavendish banana is the blander for it.

Both analogies fail in one key area, namely neither amphibians nor bananas are a human staple, but wheat is.

Houston, we have a problem.

Chris Samuel June 23, 2009 7:33 AM

Banana’s are a staple food crop in many parts of the world, for instance the website of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew ( ) says:

“In parts of equatorial Africa, plantains are the major staple crop; some people eat 4 kg of the fruits per day. Plantains are also grown in southern India and tropical America. Cooking bananas, which are very similar to plantains, are grown as a staple food in some of the Polynesian Islands, in the West Indies and in certain parts of Africa.”

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