Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Death Of Grass

The world's leading crop scientists issued a stark warning that a deadly airborne fungus could devastate wheat harvests in poor countries and lead to famines and civil unrest over significant regions of central Asia and Africa.

Ug99 — so called because it was first seen in Uganda in 1999 — is a new variety of an old crop disease called "stem rust", which has already spread on the wind from Africa to Iran. It is particularly alarming because it can infect crops in just a few hours and vast clouds of invisible spores can be carried by the wind for hundreds of miles.
If there ever was a problem crying out for a biotech fix, this is it. Conventional cross-breeding to produce resistant varieties takes time, and is a Red Queen's race. The best long-term fix would be to cut our reliance on a handful of monoculture crops with very little genetic variance and a consequent high susceptibility to disease, but in the short term we'll have to bite the biotech bullet. Especially if (when) ug99 reaches North America. Or else get used to eating potatoes and seaweed (or each other).

Shaping up to be a hell of a century, isn't it?


Blogger PeteY said...

I heard the BBC radio 4 version of The Death of Grass and I was quite disappointed with it. After the initial exposition of the scientific problem, everybody just killed each other until our man became chieftain. I hope the book is better (and I suppose I'll read it) - do you know?

March 25, 2009 12:47 am  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

It's been - ohmygosh - forty years since I read it, but I think that's the bare bones of the plot. There's a lot more to it than that of course. Far less cozy than John Wyndham - as the one episode I heard confirmed. The problem I had was David Mitchell's narration; he wasn't a good match to the material.

March 30, 2009 3:17 pm  

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