Are your favorite foods in trouble? U of M study sees threat to wheat supply

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What do bread, pizza, cookies, donuts, pancakes, spaghetti, and cereal all have in common?

They and innumerable other foods owe their existence to wheat, which could be an unsettling fact in light of new University of Minnesota research that says most of the world's wheat may be in danger.

Published this week, the study, conducted by scientists at the U of M's International Science and Technology Practice and Policy Center, says 88% of the world's wheat production is "now susceptible to infection" from stripe rust, a fungal crop disease.

According to the Minnesota Daily (the U's campus newspaper), that's more than ever before, with the disease now popping up in 27 U.S. states. Considering that it was present in just 11 states between 1960 and 1999, the study suggests stripe rust is spreading rapidly.

So what's happening? One of the study's co-authors tells the paper that the pathogen may have adapted to a warming climate and that it also may have evolved to "spread through the wheat faster."

Meanwhile, the most easily measured effects of the spread of stripe rust are economic – the study estimates 5.47 million metric tons of wheat are lost to the disease every year, which equates to some $979 million annually.

What to do about this potentially serious problem? The study recommends spending $32 million per year researching the pathogen and how to stop it, calling such an investment "economically justified" considering the losses that could be in store.

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