CAIRO: Afghanistan’s entire wheat crop may be at risk of devastation from a wheat rust disease called Ug-99, which originated in Uganda in 1999, said Egyptian and US officials at a press conference held Tuesday at the Ministry of Agriculture.
The disease, which can devastate entire crops within days and has already spread through parts Africa and Asia including Afghan-bordering Iran, will be fought in Afghanistan through the dissemination of Misr-1, a recently developed variety of disease resistant wheat, the US Department of State said in a statement.
The new strand was created through a joint effort between Egypt’s Agricultural Research Center (ARC), the United States Department of Agriculture, as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, amongst others, United States Ambassador to Egypt, Margaret Scobey explained to members of the press.
The US State Department highlighted the gravity of the issue by explaining that Ug-99 has the potential to eviscerate 70 to a full 100 percent of Afghanistan’s annual wheat crop without the introduction of Misr-1.
Wheat represents “between 2.1 and 2.5 million hectares, or approximately 60 percent of all cropland in Afghanistan,” and constitutes 70 percent of the Afghan’s annual caloric intake.
Agriculture is a crucial element of the Afghan economy, as it provides its citizens with 85 percent of their food and wages, the statement highlighted.
With the support the of the United States, which will provide transportation of the new wheat seeds to Afghanistan, and pay for the cost of the seed, Egypt will initially provide 150 tons of wheat for delivery, which will be multiplied through 2010/11 to 3,000 tons in all, the US Department of State said.
The initial delivery will ensure that 65 percent of its rust-resistant seed stocks for the 2010 planting season, which will increase the following year by five to six times, the statement explained.
Scobey stated that through this international effort, Afghan farmers’ livelihoods and food supply would be protected.
She congratulated Egypt on being one of the first countries in the world to have created a resistant wheat variety to counteract the new, potentially devastating disease.
Scobey explained that Egypt was selected to collaborate on the US’ efforts to aid Afghan farmers due to Egypt’s expertise and the advances the ARC had made in developing disease resistant wheat seeds.
Minister of Agriculture Amin Abaza was optimistic that the new Egyptian variety would be successful in protecting future Afghan crops, as it had already been tested with success in Afghanistan in November 2009, as well as in Ethiopia and Kenya, two countries which have been hit by the deadly disease.
The notion that Egypt, one of the world’s biggest wheat importers, would be providing wheat to a foreign country struck some members of the audience as odd if not irrational at a time when speculation is swirling that Egypt may be struck by a serious shortage of wheat due to the fires the have engulfed parts of Russia - one of Egypt’s main wheat exporters - that have ravaged wheat crops this past week, which has forced the country to temporarily ban wheat exports until the crisis has been contained.
In reaction to the news of the export ban, Trade and Industry Minister Rachid Mohamed Rachid said in a statement, "Egypt has a wheat supply to cover the production of subsidized bread for the upcoming four months."
Rachid said that the government acknowledges people’s concerns especially as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan is set to begin on Aug. 11, when bread consumption traditionally increases.
Abaza reiterated Rachid’s statements, adding that Egypt has undertaken a broad strategy over the years to increase self-sufficiency as well as productivity with regards to wheat production.
Further, he stated that Egyptian society must reduce loss of productivity and inefficiencies through the rational use of bread.
Abaza also highlighted that the Egyptian government recently struck a deal with France to import 250 tons of wheat to help stem the loss of wheat that was set to arrive from Russia.
Asked whether the United States would be willing to fill in the wheat export lacuna left by Russia due to its recent export ban, Scobey riposted that, in fact, the US had experienced a generous wheat crop year, and was, therefore, “open for business” if Egypt was so inclined.
It was also mentioned by Abaza that Egyptian companies should strongly consider establishing agricultural farms in Nile basin countries, such as Ethiopia, to help bolster shortcomings of national agricultural production, as these countries have vast lands to be exploited as well as sufficient sources of water to meet agricultural needs.
He added that this concept is currently being studied, but feasibility studies have varied thus far.