This Killer Fungus Could Force the Whole World to Go Gluten-Free

Rust is depleting our bread supply, but how do we feel about genetically modified wheat?

Wheat stem rust fungus (Photo: IAEA Imagebank/Flickr)

Jul 15, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Isabel Weisz is an editorial intern for summer 2014. She is an environmental analysis & policy major at Pitzer College and is originally from Santa Cruz, Calif.

For bread fans everywhere—and millions of the world's most impoverished people—the debate over genetically modified crops just got trickier. A killer fungus that attacks wheat crops could wipe out flour supplies as we know them.

Wheat has an archenemy by the name of wheat stem rust (originally named Ug99) that, like any good villain, knows how to avoid getting caught, according to National Geographic. Only 10 percent of wheat worldwide is resistant to this fungus, while the other 90 percent would likely rot and die in a matter of weeks after infection.

In the past, an attempted solution involved crossbreeding. Norman Borlaug, the "father of the 20th century green revolution," began trying the method in the 1940s, combining rust-sensitive commercial wheat with hardier rust-resistant strains. But rust—that sneaky devil—usually finds a way around rust-resistant genes after just three or four years. The fungus is exhaustingly good at sticking around and morphing to avoid being killed off.

Scientists say they've found a more effective method of thwarting rust called pyramiding. Multiple resistant genes are loaded on a single wheat strain, potentially keeping rust at bay for decades. The problem is that it takes up to 15 years to produce a resistant variety.

This is where GMOs come into play. Genetic engineering that pieces together a string of rust-resistant genes and inserts this as a block into a wheat chromosome is considered fast and reliable. Eating food that has been genetically modified, however, is a controversial issue to a public that remains unsure about the real effects of GMO crops.

What would this mean for world hunger? According to the World Food Programme, 842 million people worldwide don’t have enough to eat.

Sure, life is getting better for the world's poorest, and the proportion of people in developing countries who are chronically undernourished has dropped from 23 percent to 15 percent in the past two decades.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the world would be fine without wheat—or that we’d want to live in that kind of world anyway.

For many of us, nothing is more welcoming than some warm bread on the dinner table, not to mention that for many people bread means survival. Now the question is, What are we going to do to help wheat survive too?