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Wheat blight can have devastating impacts on crop yields. Outbreaks reportedly cost the U.S. wheat and barley industry $2.7 billion between 1998 and 2000, according to the Utah Science and Technology Research initiative, or USTAR. But worse than monetary losses is the impact the disease can have on the global food supply.

Hunger isn’t just a small annoyance felt between meals; it’s the chronic daily reality for an estimated 815 million people around the globe. Giving these people the nourishment they need will require a combination of ending government corruption, combating climate trends and finding more stable food sources.

Fortunately, research by two Utah State University scientists is showing immense promise in the category of stable food sources.

Drawing on the success of scientists who have unlocked the so-called “wheat genome sequence,” Utah State University professor Jon Takemoto and his research partner, Tom Chang, have developed a new nontoxic fungicide that will more effectively treat wheat blight and other devastating crop diseases.

Wheat is a high-protein, nutrient-dense food staple for more than one-third of the world’s population. Wheat production is a $19 billion industry, with more than 200 million tons produced each year. In Utah’s $21 billion agriculture industry, wheat is second only to hay as the state’s largest cash crop. Last year, Utah farmers produced 6.2 billion bushels of wheat.

" Hunger isn’t just a small annoyance felt between meals; it’s the chronic daily reality for an estimated 815 million people around the globe. "

Wheat blight can have devastating impacts on crop yields. Outbreaks reportedly cost the U.S. wheat and barley industry $2.7 billion between 1998 and 2000, according to the Utah Science and Technology Research initiative, or USTAR. But worse than monetary losses is the impact the disease can have on the global food supply.

Directly applying fungicides is the most effective way to control wheat blight and various other diseases, but the high levels of the chemicals necessary to build crop and soil resistance can be harmful to humans and animals. This is what makes Takemoto and Chang’s product, called K20, so appealing. The sequencing of the wheat genome is enabling Takemoto’s team to study the genetic effects of the wheat protection technology on the plant’s life cycle.

They, and their commercial partner Baicor, a manufacturer of agricultural products based in Logan, recently conducted field tests with research collaborators in Nebraska. The published results show the effectiveness of K20 as a potential stand-alone product and as a nontoxic additive to reduce the use of the more toxic chemicals now most often applied to control blight and other diseases. More work is underway to address some of the commercial aspects, such as stability in heat, humidity and UV exposure. At the same time, Takemoto and his team are working with the Environmental Protection Agency for regulatory approvals so they can get the product to market.

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The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food calls Takemoto and Chang’s work “a monumental discovery” that will “lead to a number of solutions for farmers in Utah and across the globe.” It is also another example of USU’s continued leadership in agricultural research.

The two scientists are to be commended for their groundbreaking work, and USTAR deserves praise for recognizing the importance of and funding the effort. Advancing research in the name of combating a problem as critical as global hunger is among the most important commitments the scientific community can make.