A new fungal disease called stem rust is spreading around the world, devastating wheat crops in Africa and threatening food supplies worldwide. Officials in Afghanistan are watching nervously as the fungus moves through neighboring Iran. The disease has the potential to decimate a major food source at a time when Afghanistan is already struggling with other serious issues, from drought to the Taliban insurgency to rampant opium cultivation.

The fungal disease that has worried experts around the world produces reddish-brown patches on the stems of infected wheat plants.The weakened stems break easily, and the plant is ruined.  

This strain of stem rust is known as Ug99 because it was first identified in Uganda in 1999. But it first showed its destructive power in Kenya a few years later. "And in Kenya it wiped out between 20 and 80 percent of the wheat crop," according to international agriculture expert Mahmoud Solh. "It was really serious."

Global threat

Solh directs the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), part of a global network of crop improvement centers. He says before long, the wind-borne disease blew from Kenya to Ethiopia, and has now been found in Sudan, Yemen and Iran. But Solh says Ug99 wheat crops everywhere at risk.

"It's not only a threat to some of the affected countries now, or those neighboring countries," he says. "It's a global threat to food security because most of the commercial varieties, including those in the U.S. and Canada and Europe, are susceptible to Ug99."

In Afghanistan, nearly all of the farmers grow wheat to feed their families or to sell. With the disease knocking on Afghanistan's door from neighboring Iran, experts say an outbreak of stem rust would be a serious blow to a country already reeling from an ongoing drought and decades of armed conflict.

International researchers have raced to develop wheat varieties that are not affected by stem rust. They have produced varieties that are adapted to Afghanistan's local environment. Now, the challenge is to produce enough seeds, Solh says, and to get them to the farmers.

"Improved varieties or resistant varieties are useless unless they are in the hands of the farmers, clearly," he says. "Therefore, [we are] using even [the] off-season to multiply the seed to be ready for the farmers."

"Keep your eyes open"

Associations of village farmers are working to expand supplies of the improved seeds, with guidance from ICARDA and funding from international donors. The goal is to replace at least 10 percent of Afghanistan's wheat crop with the new varieties each year, beginning with the areas along the Iranian border.

Solh advises Afghan farmers to contact government agriculture officials right away if they believe their fields are infected with stem rust. The fields will be treated to kill the fungus and stop it from spreading. Farmers will be given new, stem rust-resistant seeds.

Solh says alert farmers are an essential asset in the fight.   

"So this is really my advice to the farmers: keep their eyes open," he says. "Of course, we cannot be -- or the Afghan ministry cannot be -- everywhere to look at every field. So if the farmer can help in this regard it would be very good."

Replacing opium with saffron?

Even if Afghanistan manages to fend off the stem rust threat and protect a vital food crop, it still faces the national security threat of opium. Solh says ICARDA and others are working to help farmers grow alternatives to poppies.  

"If you want to really compete with poppies, you have to go with high-value crops, for sure," he says.

High-value crops tend to be labor-intensive. Afghan farmers are having especially good success with one such crop: saffron, a pricey seasoning hand-picked from one part of a flower.

"In Iran, the best yields they get is 6.5 kilograms per hectare, while in Afghanistan they get 10 kilograms, with as good quality as the Iranian saffron, which is famous globally," Solh says. "So, I think this is another commodity that can compete with opium."

And he says cheese-making and growing tomatoes, cucumbers and other vegetables in enclosed, plastic-covered houses are providing job opportunities for women farmers, who are not allowed to work outside.

But Solh notes that despite these improvements, the resources to sustain Afghanistan's agriculture have been decimated by decades of conflict. Much more work will need to be done to ensure that gains against stem rust and alternatives to poppy cultivation can both be maintained.