U.S. and Brazil team up to protect world’s wheat supply

Wheat farmers around the world share a common fear: decimated crops caused by a  disease called wheat blast. The fungal disease first emerged in Brazil in 1985 and wiped out one-third of Brazil’s wheat crop in 2009. Now it’s spreading.

With funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, researchers at Kansas State University are working with the University of Passo Fundo in Brazil to find creative ways to detect and prevent the spread of wheat blast.

“Wheat blast represents a major threat to global wheat production,” said Barbara Valent, an expert in wheat blast disease at Kansas State University.

The disease is easily spread from sick to healthy fields by wind and rain, and thrives in wet weather, said Valent, whose lab in Kansas has identified a gene that offers partial resistance to the disease.

The disease spread to Bangladesh in 2016, and is found in Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia and northern Argentina, Valent said. She’s concerned because the disease is spread through wheat seeds, like the grain imported for food.

Mobilizing help from farmers

Valent works with Mauricio Fernandes, an expert in disease forecasting at the University of Passo Fundo. With assistance from colleagues in Bolivia, Paraguay, Mexico and Bangladesh, they’ve developed a smartphone app that enlists help from farmers around the world.

“The app allows farmers in areas where the disease occurs to send an alert when they spot the disease in their fields. It also allows us to document exactly when and where disease occurs,” Valent explained.

“The quicker we detect disease, the better to control it,” Valent said.