Kenya: Battling stem rust disease in wheat (Trust)

| November 18, 2013

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Wheat farmers in Kenya have a new tool in their fight against a disease that is wreaking havoc across East Africa. New varieties of wheat are providing them with hope.

Discovered in Uganda in 1999, the disease-causing fungus that is ravaging wheat is known as Ug99 and causes a disease stem rust.

Antony Kimani is a 32-year-old farmer from Njoro, in Kenya’s Rift Valley region. He says: “When [rust] attacked my field three years ago, I actually thought that the leaves were drying up because the crop was nearing maturity. I almost collapsed during harvest time when I found out that there were no kernels in the heads.”

The disease is spread by tiny spores that travel on wind currents. Since 1999, the disease has spread to the neighbouring countries of Sudan and Ethiopia, and as far away as Yemen and Iran.

Geoffrey Kurgat is another farmer from Njoro. He says that, three years ago, he lost nearly 90 per cent of his crop to the disease. Along with Mr. Kimani and other farmers, Mr. Kurgat has turned to new resistant varieties to save their harvests.

Virginia Gitau is the agricultural officer for Njoro district. She believes that these new fungal diseases can be serious challenges to farmers and their livelihoods, as they are spread easily by wind, and any farm can be infected.

The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, also known as KARI, has developed new high-yielding, Ug99-rust-resistant varieties of wheat such as “Robin” and “Eagle 10” in collaboration with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, or CIMMYT. Both varieties are popular with farmers, and providing higher yields than the traditional varieties previously favoured by farmers.

According to CIMMYT, African farmers produce between 20 and 25 million tonnes of wheat per year. But in 2010, because of high losses caused by diseases, drought and other factors, African countries were forced to import nearly 38 million tonnes of wheat to meet demand.

Wheat specialists at CIMMYT say that Ug99 is the most destructive disease-causing organism in the history of stem rust. It absorbs nutrients that would otherwise be used by the plant to develop grain. Farmers have been losing 70 to 100 percent of their wheat to the disease.

Peter Njau is a research scientist at KARI. He says that the new varieties, specifically bred to withstand stem rust, are nearly ready to be distributed. He notes that farmers in Njoro district and across Kenya are very keen to start planting the resistant varieties. He hopes that 600 tonnes of seed will be harvested from seed multiplication projects and ready for farmers to plant by next season.