It took over half-a-year, but the Wired piece that brought us out to Kenya last fall is finally live. It’s the tale of a wheat-killing fungus called Ug99, which is currently sweeping across Central Asia. The pathogen is remarkable because it can easily overcomes the genetic defenses created by the Green Revolution. As a result, the vast majority of the world’s wheat is susceptible to Ug99, and a major catastrophe could ensue if nothing is done to halt the epidemic’s spread.
We’ll be posting bonus material all week, so fear not—your Ug99 jones shall be sated. For the moment, though, we’re just going to point you toward one of the most interesting aspects of the article: the tale of the man who discovered Ug99, a Ugandan wheat breeder named William Wagoire. When news broke of the pathogen’s presence in southern Uganda, Wagoire should have been celebrated as a scientific hero. Instead, he was villified:
Uganda’s tabloid press jumped on the story. Kampala newspapers manipulated the facts to demonize Wagoire, making it appear as though he had somehow synthesized Ug99 in a lab. Accustomed to hearing tales of how Western scientists had invented HIV, the Ugandan public was all too willing to swallow the sci-fi narrative. “The local politicians and the general populace, they do not know about the evolution of diseases,” Wagoire says. “All they know is that research scientists work in laboratories and that diseases are in laboratories. So in this case, the story was ‘Wagoire has created a disease which is going to wipe out all the wheat in the world!’ That was a very trying time for me.”
(Image by Microkhan. It’s a photo we snapped of Afghanistan’s “test wheat,” planted at Njoro, Kenya, where Ug99 is in the wild.)