The Cause of the Interstellar Famine, and Why It Could Happen in Real Life
In the upcoming Christopher Nolan film Interstellar, astronauts travel through a wormhole in order to find another habitable planet, as the Earth has been ravaged by famine. Now we know that (spoiler!) this famine is caused by a blight fungus that targets wheat and okra, virtually wiping out all of our most important crops. If that sounds somewhat mundane, it's probably because it could easily happen in real life. Blight fungus was responsible for the Great Famine in Ireland in the 1800's (although that was specifically potato blight), and, even more alarmingly, there is a real-life counterpart that is currently threatening our wheat crops.
Ug99, a strain of wheat stem rust, has targeted and destroyed countless wheat crops in Africa and is now encroaching on the Middle East. It is a fungus which causes the stems of the wheat to grow pustules that emit pathogenic spores and kills entire crops in mere weeks, and it is quickly spreading. If it manages to establish a global presence, it has the capability to wipe out 90 percent of our wheat crops, which would decimate our food supply.
"Wheat is a very important cereal," said Ravi Singh of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center. "Twenty percent of [humans'] calories and about the same [percent of] protein are coming from wheat."
Ug99 is all the more terrifying because it continually mutates, which means that even the 10% of wheat that is currently Ug99-resistant may not be safe. Some experts claim that genetically modifying a resistant type of wheat is the answer, but GM has become something of a dirty word, with both legislators and the general public. "We could do millions of things [with transgenics]," said Jorge Dubcovsky, a wheat geneticist and breeder at UC Davis, "but we have our hands tied."