Kenya: Farmers optimistic about new wheat varieties (IRIN)

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Farmers in Kenya have reason to be optimistic about the future of wheat in their country. The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, or KARI, is preparing to release two new varieties of wheat. These varieties are resistant to the strain of wheat stem rust known as Ug99.

Ug99 was named after its discovery in Uganda in 1999. The fungus is spread by wind-borne spores. Ug99 causes infected plants to die or produce fewer seeds. By 2003, most of Kenya’s wheat varieties had been identified as susceptible to the fungus.

Peter Njau is a plant breeder at KARI. He notes that wheat is important to Kenya’s food supply, even though it is not as widely grown as maize or rice. Wheat is grown on about four per cent of the country’s arable land.

Since 2005, KARI has been searching for wheat varieties resistant to Ug99. Scientists screened over 200,000 lines of wheat. Only 10 per cent of these were found to have some resistance to Ug99. According to Mr. Njau, only a handful of these 10 per cent could adapt to the Kenyan environment. Experts evaluated these lines, checking if they would be suitable for commercial production in Kenya. Those which looked like a good fit were developed further for the Kenyan farmer.

Peter Njau says, “That was how Eagle10 and Robin wheat varieties were born.” Eagle10 was selected for lower altitude regions. Robin is for medium to high altitude use.

Scientists found the new varieties are suitable for baking and making bread. But Kenyan wheat farmers still need to try them for themselves. Farmers who attended a field day at KARI expressed optimism about the new wheat varieties.

Peter Thiongo used to grow wheat. But, as he explains, “That disease [Ug99] was a disaster to wheat farming; it turned out that I would not make any profit, having spent too much on fungicides.” So he turned to growing maize. But he hopes that in future, he will not need to spend money on fungicides. He says, “I am ready to plant when seeds are available.”

KARI is working with the Kenya Seeds Company to multiply the new seeds. KARI has set aside 12 hectares in Njoro, in the Rift Valley, exclusively for wheat breeding. Dr. Ephraim Mukisira is the director of KARI. He says, “We are expecting to have produced more than 10 tons of the new seed variety by the end of this year.”

Kenyan farmers have been abandoning wheat farming in recent years because of Ug99. Production costs went up 40 per cent between 2001 and 2011. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Kenya imports about 60 per cent of the wheat it needs. Dr. Mukisira says, “I urge farmers to go back to wheat farming, knowing that the new varieties have a much lower cost of production.”