Wheat fields in the country's eight southern districts were affected with 'wheat blast', a disease caused by fungus, in February this year. There was no option but to burn all the affected wheat fields. This is the very first outbreak of such disease in Bangladesh. Previously it had heavy impact in Brazil in 1985, then Bolivia and later in some other countries.
After this happened, our agricultural research, wheat research and other organizations including CIMMYT have started working together with an in-depth insight to tackle wheat blast. Before the next season, all the authorities concerned with wheat cultivation and research are monitoring on sending the fresh wheat seeds to the field. Very recently, I went to the fields to see and learn the new updates.
For the past few years, the overall development of Bangladesh in agriculture sector is evident. We are now self-sufficient in food grains; stand 4th in the world in freshwater fish production; can take pride in the amount of vegetables and fruits produced. The credit goes to all - the government, national and international organisations and of course, general farmers. For the last 6-7 years, there was no problem in agriculture sector, which was too big to make us worried.
However, the wheat blast disease in February this year came as a new worry.
The scenes of burning wheat lands were shown on TV channels and newspapers. Wheat on 15 thousand hectares of land in eight districts was ruined. The losses are not less than 2.5 crore taka. According to the government's report, this year, 20%-30% of wheat fields were harmed due to blast spread in Bangladesh for the first time.
In 1985, wheat blast was first seen in Latin America. Till date, scientists haven't been able to create a breed of wheat that is resistant to this disease. Besides, it is not possible to wipe out this disease by crop rotation, fertiliser and fungicide application and management system. Due to this disease, 40%-50% or even in some cases 100% of crops can get harmed. During 90s, in South America, crops of more than three million hectares of lands were destroyed by this disease. In many areas of South America, wheat cultivation stopped because of this disease.
Scientists, researchers, extension workers, the government authorities are not sitting idle. Already, a national committee has been established. Many meetings at high levels have already taken place. On July 26, an international workshop was held in Nepal, which focused on wheat blast disease. The epidemic of wheat blast in Bangladesh was at the centre point. Dr Abed Chowdhury, an international wheat blast expert, says it is a very devastating pathogen. The loss can be almost 100%.
The demand of wheat is increasing day by day. Compared to the last six years, the import of wheat has increased by 14 lakh 15 thousand tonne. During the same period, the production of wheat increased only by 4 lakh 98 thousand tonne.
Dr Tofazzal Islam, professor of biotechnology at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman University (BSMRAU), formed an open platform (a web portal) 'open wheat blast' after hearing the news of wheat blast. With him, in this platform, 'The Sainsbury laboratory' and 'Genome Analysis Centre' got involved.
“When it first appeared in our country all on a sudden, I sent the message to Twitter by posting a photo,” says Dr Tofazzal. Then, one of his friends working at the Sainsbury Laboratory responded.
“We formed a group within 24 hours combining the John Innes Centre, the Genome Analysis Centre, the Sainsbury Laboratory and our lab,” Tofazzal adds.
His intention was to mark the disease through genome sequencing as fast as possible by using the latest technologies in the world. Thus, he opened the website and made all the data on wheat blast open for everyone.
“We did that to engage the global scientific community in tackling this disease,” says Dr Tofazzal.
“Our research says it didn't come from rice or local weed; the same category of wheat blast, which has been harming countries in South America, affected us,” affirms Dr Tofazzal.
This is a seed borne disease and through seed the germ can go from one place to another, scientists said, adding that they don't have any definite evidence regarding the medium through which the disease has come to Bangladesh.
However, scientists are sure of the fact that there is no possibility of the fungus to come here in Bangladesh crossing thousands of kilometres by air from Brazil.
Now the question that worries the agriculture scientists and farmers is whether this wheat blast fungus will reappear in the next season and whether it will spread to paddy. There is no scope to ignore the threats. Latin America couldn't get any success in preventing wheat blast.
We have surely gotten success in terms of food security, although problem still prevails. In a situation where we can't even afford to lose a little amount of production, wheat on 15 thousand hectares of land was totally wasted.
Scientists have asked the government to undertake a project for preventing wheat blast on an emergency basis. The way the scientists have come together and are taking initiatives regarding this issue, it brings hope for unearthing the genome sequencing of wheat blast and finding a way to prevent it. If they succeed, the world might see another achievement of Bangladeshi scientists and researchers.