Agricultural scientists are making progress against an expensive strain of wheat rust, which has crippled crops in Africa, according to both universities and international organizations.  

Kenya has found new wheat varieties resistant to the Ug99 rust, which threatens up to 80 percent of the global wheat supply. The rust can cause complete crop failure if fungicides are not used in time.

Even the International Atomic Energy Agency is helping to distribute these resistant wheat types to countries besides Kenya, UN Radio reported on Tuesday. The rust has infected crops in Kenya, Ethiopia, Yemen and Iran, according to the report.

Twenty countries have been involved in the research and distribution of the mutant-resistant wheats, the IAEA’s head of plant breeding, Brian Foster, told the UN. Thirteen mutant lines have been developed in six countries.

“Some of these lines are so advanced now that they are about to be released as varieties in Kenya,” he said, adding that resistant wheat strains could land in Uganda by 2015.

Ug99 wheat rust was discovered in Uganda in 1999, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The fungus can also infect barley and rye.

Separately, Montana State University researchers filed provisional patents last week, offering up similar protections against Ug99 and another rust strain, Yr27.

The university lauded the development of their non-genetically modified trait, adding that rust-resistant varieties of wheat have been known to save more than $1 billion each year.

It could be years, however, before the new wheat strains affect supply or prices. The Montana State University patent could take four years or more before it is authorized. It could take a further three harvest seasons before the just-discovered strains are available at a commercial level, too, said MSU spokesman Gary Bloomer.

The Borlaug Global Rust Initiative, which combats global wheat rust, has said that the wheat rust could travel eastward through the Middle East to infect India, a key global breadbasket.

Kenya produced 512,000 metric tons of wheat in 2010, estimated the UN in a July 2013 report. The country is negligible in terms of impact on global supply, but the Ug99 strain is still a key risk to food supplies, according to Bloomberg, and effective protections could raise crop yields.

Ug99 Global Spread, UN FAO Map August 2010 Ug99 Global Spread, UN FAO Map August 2010 Photo: UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), August 2010 Map