UG99 and Hubris

Last September, I told you about the passing of Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug. As the father of the “Green Revolution” in agriculture, Borlaug was credited with saving hundreds of millions, perhaps even a billion, lives. His work with food crops, and the work of those inspired by him, is why “food today is cheap and widely available, and why famines have become relatively rare events.”

Given Borlaug’s contribution to human well-being, it’s ironic that it was one of his students who discovered the greatest threat to Borlaug’s legacy.

That threat, discovered by William Magiore in Uganda ten years ago, goes by the innocuous-sounding name of UG99. That’s the only innocuous thing about it. UG99 is a fungus that causes stem rust, which has been called the “polio of agriculture.”

For thousands of years stem rust, which attacks wheat, would periodically wreak havoc on humanity. It would leave famine and chaos in its wake. It was such a threat that the Romans worshiped a god named “Robigus,” whose power was the ability to prevent stem rust.

Stem Rust was finally brought under control by what Borlaug called a “mind-warpingly tedious” process of trial and error: He and others bred wheat that was resistant to the blight and, thus, mitigated the threat posed by this ancient scourge.

Mitigated, not eliminated. Since its discovery, UG99, to which 90 percent of our wheat crop has no resistance, has spread eastward: it has been detected in Iran and now threatens to spread into South Asia’s breadbasket. From there it could move into China. This would put up to a billion people under what is euphemistically called “food stress.”

At the very least, food prices would soar and the poor, who already live on a knife’s edge, would face malnutrition and even famine.

As bad as that is, it’s not the nightmare scenario: that real nightmare would be if UG99 headed west as well as east. Surpluses in the U.S. and Canada are the world’s food insurance. As one expert put it, “If this stuff gets into the Western Hemisphere . . . God help us.”

That’s why food scientists are scrambling to stay ahead of fungus and prevent a catastrophe. Christians ought to support and pray for their efforts. It’s hard to imagine a greater priority than preventing a global food crisis. We in the West might be able to absorb higher food prices—our neighbors and brethren in the global south can’t. Global instability would soon follow.

This crisis should also serve as lesson about human hubris. We like to think that we have mastered nature and somehow emancipated ourselves from the limits imposed by our physical environment. We speak of “making the world smaller” because we invented the airplane and built the internet. Like Nebuchadnezzar, we see our world as proof of our power and majesty.

Then, along comes a minor volcanic eruption in Iceland, or a spore the size of a red blood cell, and they remind us of how vulnerable we really are. Or they would if we were capable of humility before God. Since we’re not, we may have to learn the hard way.

God help us, indeed.

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