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Wheat Rust: An Emerging Problem In The Agro Field

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By Aashu Anshuman:

In 1961, India was on the verge of a mass famine. In that moment of crisis MS Swaminathan, the advisor to the Minister of Agriculture very suitably sought help from a certain Norman Borlaug (a.k.a the Father of Green Revolution). The government collaborated with the Ford Foundation and imported modified wheat seed from Borlaug’s own International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT). Thus began India’s Green Revolution and in a matter of a few years, India went on from being an importer to a major exporter of food grains.

Going further back, in 1943, Norman Borlaug discovered a gene — the famed Sr31 — which resisted Puccinia graminis, the most devastating form of wheat rust (a fungal disease that effects wheat,barley and rye stems, leaves and grains). This find, considered to be one of the greatest in human history, saved several million people across the world from malnourishment and eventual death. Stem rust was effectively defeated and farmers across the world heaved a collective sigh of relief. By the 1970s, it was believed to have been wiped off from the face of the earth.

Thereon, farmers, scientists and governments fell into a state of complacency. CIMMYT saw the budget of its global wheat programme cut by 40% in real terms since 1980. Today, only five institutions in the world are able to properly identify stem rust, and three of them do not accept foreign samples.

Fast forwarding to 1998, William Wagoire, a plant breeder and a pupil of Borlaug’s, was in south-western Uganda, when he came across something he didn’t believe existed anymore. But actually, the variety of stem rust Wagoire had come across had lived on in a remote corner of Africa’s Great lakes and had been evolving the whole time. This new variant, called the Ug99 (Ug for Uganda, the country of its discovery; 99 for the year it was confirmed), had mutated to conquer the mighty Sr31. As Borlaug had once said, “The Rust’ never slept.”

A few thousand miles away and years later in 2002, another pathogen race, again a form of rust, had emerged in South Asia. The Stripe Rust also called the Yellow Rust (or Yr) had overcome the resistant gene in wheat and turned out to be way more dangerous than was ever expected. ICARDA quickly sprung into action to carry out extensive research to fight this new, stronger and grossly underestimated sibling of stem rust. Luckily, the further spread of Yr was restricted due to unfavourable weather. But it returned in 2009, when it, capable of destroying 100 percent of the yield according to the scientists, affected as much as 80 percent of the fields in certain key wheat producers like Syria. Other affected countries include Afghanistan, Algeria and Tunisia.

Meanwhile Puccinia graminis continued its spread. Spores of rust, billions of them, are carried from one field to another by wind. But they can take much larger leaps. In 2007, rust jumped the Red Sea, probably as a result of Cyclone Gonu and entered Yemen. From there it spread to the Mongolian steppe and into Iran, where luckily droughts held its spread for some time. Back in Africa, Ug99 and its variants spread northwards into Sudan and reached as far south as South Africa, a major wheat producer. Kenya, where it spread violently in less than a year, saw nearly 80 percent of its wheat crop destroyed by stem rust in 2007. By 2009, stem rust had already affected 8 major wheat producing nations.

In a world in which 800 million people are chronically undernourished, anything that reduces the food supply has potential for tragedy. The pathogen has now come knocking on the doors of China and India, which among the world’s largest wheat producers and exporters. Recently, four new mutations of Ug99 have overcome existing sources of genetic resistance developed to safeguard the world’s wheat crop. Leading wheat experts have said that these new variants are even more deadly and are evolving even more quickly.

But the future is not all bleak. Scientists across the world have been brought together by the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative to fight this new and immensely powerful enemy. CIMMYT and ICARDA have shown agility in developing new species of wheat which are resistant these new variants of rust. India has developed its own rust-resistant variety of seed. These new varieties of wheat, which bear nearly no direct extra cost, are being taken to the markets to replace the weaker ones. Even privately run organisations like the Gates Foundation have come up with monetary help whenever the researchers have needed it.

Experts believe that 80-90 percent of the world’s current wheat produce is susceptible to rust but the farmers should be hopeful because this time around, everybody is acting before the epidemic and not during one. The challenge is huge and even scary but it looks like the good side has finally started to come out as victorious.

The writer is a Correspondent of Youth Ki Awaaz. He is also a student in the Department of Ceramic Engineering at the Institute of Technology, Banaras Hindu University. A Python enthusiast, an avid reader, a budding technology entrepreneur and a huge cricket fan, he appreciate the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Kailash Kher.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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