"Global food security can rise and fall with the success or failure of China's wheat crop," said Ronnie Coffman at the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) Technical Workshop in Beijing, Sept. 1-4.

Because China is the largest wheat producer and consumer in the world, threats to its wheat crop or any significant decline in production could have an impact on food security, according to Coffman, who is also director of international programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Wheat is the third leading grain crop in China after rice and maize, with 24 million hectares under cultivation. Yearly production stands at 115 million tons, which is 17 percent of the world's production.

Experts at the workshop said the biggest challenges facing wheat farmers in China are water scarcity, increased occurrence of various diseases, and high temperatures and droughts caused by global climate change, combined with increasing labor shortages and land-use shifts from grain production to cash crops.

Stripe rust is a growing problem in northwestern China and can cause losses of 10 percent to 50 percent per year.

Stem rust can act like a "biological firestorm," according to Coffman. "Overnight, it can turn fields of wheat into blackened stubble with no grain."

Coffman advocates preparedness and breeding resistance into wheat that is based on more than single resistance genes. He noted that although stem rust is not currently a major issue in China, yellow rust is.

"China's wheat varieties are highly susceptible to both rusts," Coffman said. "Considering their resistance to rusts and other diseases, we would welcome China to be more proactive in screening lines for rust resistance."

Scientists from every region of the world attended the Beijing workshop. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK Department for International Development, the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat Project is managed by Cornell.