Wheat Rust: Documenting the Fight Against a Deadly Pathogen

"We are like war reporters on the front lines in the fight for global food security." Says Linda McCandless of Cornell University's Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project.
"We are like war reporters on the front lines in the fight for global food security." Says Linda McCandless of Cornell University's Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project.
“We are like war reporters on the front lines in the fight for global food security.” Says Linda McCandless of Cornell University’s Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project.

Wheat. It’s what’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Wheat near Auvers-sur-Oise, France. Photo by: David Monniaux, Wikimedia Commons
Wheat near Auvers-sur-Oise, France
Photo by: David Monniaux, Wikimedia Commons

Last year, the world consumed over 655 million metric tons of wheat-making wheat one of our favorite grains, and an essential part of the global food supply. From your morning cereal, to the bun on a Big Mac, or the pasta leftover from last night, wheat is in much of what we eat, and it is used in countless every-day products like hair conditioner, moisturizers, laundry detergent, plastic bags, cups, packing peanuts and more.

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It’s hard to imagine a world without wheat, but a pathogen called Ug99 currently affecting wheat crops in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia could have disastrous consequences for the global wheat supply if left unchecked. Veverka Bros. speaks with Linda McCandless and Christopher Knight of Cornell University’s Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project (DRRW) who are documenting the work of an international group of scientists who have been fighting the spread of Ug99 and helping farmers protect their wheat crops.

What is Ug99, and how does it pose a threat to our global food security?

Close-up of stem rust (''Puccinia graminis'') on wheat. Photo by: Yue Jin, Wikimedia Commons
Close-up of stem rust (Puccinia graminis) on wheat
Photo by: Yue Jin, Wikimedia Commons

McCandless: Ug99 is a form of stem rust found in Uganda in 1998. Ug99 and its variants threaten the world’s wheat supply because most of the world’s wheat is vulnerable to infection. Stem rust can spread like wildfire and devastate entire fields. Infected fields can turn black almost overnight. Stem rust blackens the stems of the wheat plant, causing them to fall over, and affecting the ability of the plant to make grain. In Biblical times wheat rust was considered a plague. Farmers whose wheat fields are infected with rust can lose their entire crop. More than 45% of the world’s calories come from wheat. When wheat yields fall, food prices go up and political instability quickly follows.

You made a series of videos documenting the work that’s being done to fight Ug99. What are some of the places you’ve been and things you’ve documented in these videos?

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McCandless: The general purpose of the videos we are producing is as advocacy in the fight against Ug99 and the other wheat rusts that infect wheat. We are like war reporters on the front lines in the fight for global food security. Wheat is one of the world’s most important staple crops and we are documenting the work of the scientists and farmers who are engaged in that war.

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We have been to Kenya, Ethiopia, Nepal, India, Mexico, China, Minnesota, Washington State, and of course Ithaca, NY, to shoot. We have produced overview videos, and are working or have produced others on topics like: Norman Borlaug’s Legacy in India, the BGRI Women in Triticum Awards, [and many others.]

Knight: We’ve also been conducting in depth interviews with key players within the project to create an oral history of the work that is being done. Our most successful video is an educational animation that details the life cycle of wheat stem rust, written, directed, and narrated by Iago Hale, a key scientist from our group who is working at the University of New Hampshire.

For our informational videos, we have traveled to several countries to see how our work has impacted wheat farmers. I’ve been to Nepal, India and Ethiopia to interview farmers and the scientists working with them about their experiences. What we’ve seen is that farmers are often very grateful for the research that is being done. Everywhere we’ve gone, we’ve heard stories about how devastating the rust disease has been during periods of severe infection. Some farmers told us about how they have lost most if not all of their wheat crops during such epidemics. I think that using filmmaking as a tool for discovering the impacts of the project has been very effective. It gives the viewer a chance to see the faces and hear the voices of the people who are most likely to be impacted by the project.

Can you share a story from one of your interviewees or places you visited that was particularly interesting or memorable?

Makida Mohammed is a wheat farmer in Ethiopia who grows rust-resistant varieties of wheat.
Makida Mohammed is a wheat farmer in Ethiopia who grows rust-resistant varieties of wheat.

Knight: Ethiopia-Makida Mohammed is a Wheat farmer, a mother and the head of her household. In the past she’s seen the effects of drought, floods and outbreaks of yellow rust on her village’s crops. Since these disease outbreaks, we’ve been working with the Ethiopian Institute for Agricultural Research to enable them to breed disease resistant varieties of wheat. Makida has been producing improved wheat seed and she’s been quite happy with it.

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In 2012, we flew Makida to our Annual workshop which was held in Bejing China, where she addressed the audience of international wheat researchers about the importance of improved wheat varieties.

McCandless: I visited Makida’s village two times-once before she came to China, and then once with Chris Knight when we returned 1 year later. The first time, it was clear to me as a journalist that she had an incredible story to tell and that she was a risk-taker. It is amazing to experience the gratitude of farmers like her who have planted resistant varieties of wheat. They go from cautious curiosity to willingness to take a risk to harvesting successful yields to full-scale proponents of the new varieties. From village pariah, they become the progressive successful go-to leaders. They are able to eat more securely for the entire year not just part of it; they are able to send their children to school; they are able to put new roofs on their houses. They form cooperatives and are empowered to become agents of change in their villages.

What are some of the biggest challenges you faced while shooting?

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Knight: The main one is the language barrier. Our goal is to convey the stories of the farmers that we’ve interviewed with the greatest accuracy possible. In places like Nepal, India and Ethiopia, many farmers speak local languages, so it can be hard to communicate… Translation and transcription work is expensive and time consuming even for those with expertise, but the results have been worth it 100%. To be able to hear the stories told by farmers living half-way around the world has been very powerful.

McCandless: The biggest challenge for me as an executive producer is to understand the context behind what we are shooting and then to be able to make it accessible to various audiences by finding the faces, voices and story lines that give it the greatest expression. As video documentary producers, we face the same challenges that everybody who is involved in scientific communication faces-how do we make an audience care about the work that scientists do? How can we positively affect public opinion and public policy so that agricultural research is funded? At the end of the day, we are advocates for science.

Christopher Knight (right) on location in Nepal.
Christopher Knight (right) on location in Nepal.

How has the research and outreach being done by Cornell been funded?

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McCandless: The funding for the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) project is a model for public-private partnerships. The principal investigator for the DRRW is Professor Ronnie Coffman, director of International Programs at Cornell University. His team coordinates the group of 23 research institutions involved in the project. It is funded by a $68M (USD) investment from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Department for International Development in the UK (DFID). These funds are both used and augmented by funds from public institutions, particularly CIMMYT in Mexico, ICAR in India, KARI in Kenya, EIAR in Ethiopia, NARC in Nepal, and similar national agricultural programs in other participating countries.

What’s next in the fight against wheat rust?

McCandless: Scientists working on the DRRW project and the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative will continue to develop new varieties of wheat and help farmers adopt them in their fields. We will also continue to train new scientists, both men and women, from countries where wheat is an important crop, so they can be the first line of defense against future pests and diseases that threaten the world’s wheat supply.

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Trained as an aerospace engineer, writer/director Jesse Veverka was a financial analyst on Wall Street before co-founding his own media production company, Veverka Bros. Productions LLC, with his brother Jeremy. He has worked and lived throughout Asia, including Japan, Korea, Indonesia and China, where he has produced a number of award-winning films. His articles have appeared in various publications including CNN Travel, Japan’s Metropolis Magazine and China’s Global Times. He was born in Ithaca, NY. Jeremy Veverka is a media professional with specialties in documentary filmmaking, photojournalism, cinematography, sound design, and commercial work. His award-winning films, including the feature documentary China: The Rebirth of an Empire, cover a range of geopolitical issues and have been screened at dozens of film festivals worldwide. With a degree in English from Cornell University and extensive travel experience throughout Asia and the Middle East, Jeremy brings his background in storytelling and international journalism to each of his projects and strives to give a voice to historically underrepresented groups. To learn more, visit www.jeremyveverka.com or follow Jeremy on Twitter: @JeremyVeverka.