Story Publication logo October 15, 2008



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Ug99, a virulent fungal disease, could create a major food security crisis by attacking the world's...

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My hotel room in Nairobi is a decontamination site right now.

I have come to Africa to cover a virulent new form of the ancient wheat crop scourge called stem rust. It surfaced a few years ago in Kenya and Uganda, spread into Ethiopia, jumped the Red Sea to Yemen, showed up this year in Iran and now threatens the security of the world's second largest crop.

Scientists worldwide are combing wheat varieties for resistance with limited results. Meanwhile, a major worry is that travelers will transport the deadly rust spores outside Kenya which is the hotspot for the disease.

I spent several days in fields at a station of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute where scientists have deliberately exposed varieties from around the world to the stem rust fungus in hopes of identifying resistant wheat.

Peter Njau, the station's deputy director, gives every visitor a brochure outlining precautions that are necessary in order to leave the rust spores in Kenya.

My first step toward compliance was to limit the items I carried into the field. Laptop, camera case, spare notebooks, memory sticks and pens stayed behind. Camera and digital recorder went into a washable backpack.

After the field work was finished, every item I had worn – cap, slacks, stockings, scarf, shirt and underwear – went to a laundry in Nakuru, a town near the agricultural station. I showered several times and washed my shoes and backpack.

For safe measure, I'm repeating the drill in Nairobi just before I leave Kenya. My hotel bathroom is a laundry. I have wiped down every part of the camera, recorder and lenses I carried into field – first with hand sanitizer and then with a wet cloth. I threw away the pen and batteries.

The biggest challenge is my notebook. I will sit up tonight transcribing the notes, and toss the book into the waste basket before I leave.

Scientists told me I'm a relatively low risk because I'm flying to Minnesota where wheat crops were harvested months ago and the temperature is dropping low enough to kill the rust spores.

I'm not taking any chances though. I learned while reporting this story that stem rust ravaged U.S. crops in the middle of the 20th Century. I will not be the carrier who reintroduces this latest version of the menace to the American Midwest.


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Food Security

Food Security
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