By ESHA SHAH, STEPS Centre member

A deadly strain of disease has been identified as spreading fast across the wheat fields of Asia and Africa and scientists are worried that it could potentially cause mass starvation, according to new reports in the Indian and the UK press.

The Hindu recently picked up on an article that first appeared in the UK Sunday newspaper the Observer. While black stem rust inflicted wheat fields for many years in the past, it was believed to have been eradicated in the 1960s as new resistant varieties were developed.

The new threat from black stem rust is so great that international agriculture expert and Nobel prize-winner Norman Borlaug has spoken out, saying the new strain of the fungus has immense potential for destruction as it attacks through the resistant genes in the new varieties. Borlag told New Scientist magazine “This thing has immense potential for social and human destruction.” He blames complacency.

According to the Hindu and Observer reports “stem rust spores have destroyed harvests in Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia” and have“blown across the Red Sea into the Arabian peninsula and infected wheat fields in Yemen. Spores have also blown northwards into Sudan” and likely to affect India and Pakistan.

What is intersting about this news is that it is not entirely new. But what is unprecendented is that the scientists who were instrumental in developing first generation of new wheat varieties, like Norman Borlaug, are publicly starting their concern. The militant resurgence of deadly strains of old and repressed diseases, which were believed to be localised , now appear to have the potential to have a global effect. And clearly the science is clueless about any “quick fix solutions”, at least in this instance.

Most importantly, any attempts to answer question such as ‘where does this resurgence come from?’ and ‘why has it appeared?’ point in the direction of the role of the science and technology-based agrarian development paradigm adopted since the Green Revolution. There indeed are no quick fix solutions.

This post links to a series of blogs that tie in with the STEPS Centre project on risk, uncertainty and new technologies with special reference to India.