Potential threat to wheat growers brings Sen. Moran to campus

Sen. Jerry Moran speaks to Martin Draper, department head of plant pathology, and Barbara Valent, distinguished professor of plant pathology, after a presentation on wheat blast and its potential threat to wheat growers worldwide in a lab of Throckmorton Hall on Oct. 27, 2016. (Kaitlyn Alanis | The Collegian)

The threat of wheat blast to wheat growers worldwide brought U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Interim President Gen. Richard Myers to Kansas State’s agricultural research facilities in Throckmorton Hall.

“I’m pleased to be here with Gen. Myers and K-State faculty and researchers to get a snapshot of what’s going on in regard to agriculture research,” Moran said. “I chair the Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee. We’re responsible for determining the funding at (the U.S. Department of Agriculture), including a number of research programs, one of which funds the research we saw here today related to wheat blast.”

The session was led by Barbara Valent, university distinguished professor of plant pathology. Valent’s research on wheat blast is solely funded by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The session allowed Moran and Myers to see how K-State, the lead wheat blast researching institution in the U.S., is utilizing the grant, which expires in 2017, to prepare for or prevent a wheat blast invasion in the states.

“This is a really scary disease,” Valent said. “It hadn’t been seen out of South America until this February when it was found in Bangladesh.”

Christian Cruz, research assistant professor and the first person hired by Valent, said the worst wheat blast invasion “came out of nowhere” in 2009. Brazil lost one-third of all wheat crops due to the wheat blast pathogen.

Wheat blast research

“The pathogen is obviously dangerous,” Valent said. “We work with it in the (Biological Research Institute). The wheat fungus only exists in the (institute). It’ll never come out of there alive.”

Cruz said their research has found there are not many resistant genes in wheat, which is a major scientific concern. He is working to not just control the fungicide, but rather to find the “right wheat” that would be resistant to the pathogen.

The bad news, Cruz said, is there are many elite winter cultivars in Kansas that are highly susceptible to wheat blast. On the bright side, Cruz said several cultivars in Kansas are moderately resistant, which means they know where the gene resides.

Valent said it is a surprise to the research team that there is not a lot of resistance found in wheat and they really do not understand how that is.

Because of this, they are looking for resistant genes in wild wheat, which is much more difficult to research, Valent said.

Martin Draper, department head of plant pathology, said because this disease has the potential to threaten food security, the research they are doing should remain a top priority with USDA.

“As long as there are opportunities to address food securities like this, it’s going to float to the top because it does have such a significant impact on the food supply in the world,” Draper said.

Research and the Kansas economy

Moran said he was pleased to see and learn the importance of the Biological Research Institute and K-State researching not just wheat blast, but also its impact on research and the economy in Kansas.

“I’m pleased to see the kind of research that’s being done here, to learn of its importance (and) to find young students and young PhD scientists who have found K-State (as) the place to do that research,” Moran said. “And to learn about the importance of the BRI to research occurring in Kansas, particularly here at Kansas State University.”

Moran said this is a great opportunity to increase educational opportunities, grow the economy and bring business to Kansas related to agricultural research.

“If we can grow the opportunities for students, for young men and women who like science, mathematics, engineering and research, we will have created a place that will be better,” Moran said. “We’ll be a better state — a better opportunity for people who call themselves Kansans — now and in the future.”

Facility, agriculture research funding

Valent said there is more work and research her team could be doing related to wheat blast research, but due to a “space crunch,” they are very limited in what they can do.

“We are so crowded,” Valent said. “And we can do more. We’re getting approached every day by people who want to come here and learn about wheat blast and students who want to come, but we’re really limited on space.”

Moran said despite chairing the Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee, there is just no money for facilities.

Myers said “the whole agriculture enterprise” at K-State needs about $300 million to recapitalize.

“One area on campus since I’ve been here and became aware of, (agriculture) has not improved their facilities over a long period of time,” Myers said. “They’ve got a lot of areas where they really can’t do research.”

Myers said that in his perspective, the “next big priority” for the university has to be their agriculture enterprise.

With the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility currently under construction in Manhattan, an elite veterinary program already here and the possibility for more agriculture research, Myers said the state and university are behind in integrating the agriculture enterprise together.

“We’ve got to get going,” Myers said. “I would think that the state would be interested.”

Moran, who typically focuses on medical research, said he needs to up his emphasis on agricultural research because, as in this case, food and health really can’t be separated.

“We need to get agricultural communities to rally around agricultural research just as the pharmaceuticals, health care and the American Cancer Society has rallied for (National Institutes of Health) increases,” Moran said. “Agriculture has got to come and be the advocate, the cheerleader, the supporter of support for increasing funding of agricultural research.”

Hi, I'm Kaitlyn Alanis, former news editor for the Collegian and a May 2017 graduate in agricultural communications and journalism. I have never tried a hamburger and I hate the taste of coffee, but I love writing stories and sharing what I learn with our readers. By writing for the Collegian, I can now not only sing along when the K-State Band plays "The Band is Hot," but I also know that most agriculture students did not grow up on a farm, how to use an AED to save someone's life and why there is a bust of MLK Jr. outside of Ahearn Field House. Thanks for reading!