Wheat stem rust hits Rift Valley farmers

A close up shot of a Ug99 infested wheat crop
(Ann Weru/IRIN)

Wheat stem rust, Ug99, continues to threaten the livelihoods of hundreds of farmers in Kenya’s Rift Valley region as controlling it pushes up production costs.

First identified in Uganda in 1998 and reported in 1999, hence the name, the fungus Ug99 was noted in some Kenyan wheat varieties in 2001; by 2003, all Kenyan varieties had been identified as susceptible.

“We have received a lot of reports from farmers this season especially complaining that despite spraying their crop it has been affected by the rust,” Hillary Kiprotich Ngeno, the Mau Narok divisional agriculture extension officer, told IRIN. Mau Narok, in Njoro District in Rift Valley, is a major wheat-growing region.

Wet and misty conditions, following successive rainfall seasons since November 2009, are making Ug99, which is spread via wind-borne spores, even harder to control.

“Before, we would spray the wheat field twice but now we are being forced to apply the chemical up to five times. This is adding to our expenses,” Joseph Mburu Njoroge, who has leased 4.5 hectares to grow wheat, at a rate of 5,000 shillings (US$62) for about half a hectare, told IRIN. “The land is also degraded and you have to apply fertilizer. You need some extra business on the side to meet these costs.”

The cost of a litre of fungicide, about 2,800 shillings ($35), which is enough for a hectare of wheat, and that of hiring a tractor for mechanized spraying, at about 1,200 ($15) per hectare, is pushing up production costs by about 40 percent. Small-scale farmers who account for 80 percent of wheat growers are especially hard hit.

Yield loss

According to a crop breeder with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) in Njoro, Peter Njau, farmers are embracing disease control measures to avoid heavy crop losses. Spraying fields when infestation is already too high or using the wrong products are some of the problems.

“Wheat rust may account for yield losses of between 50 to 70 percent if uncontrolled. When the wheat has Ug99, farmers think it is ready for harvesting but all they get is chaff and no wheat,” Njau told IRIN, adding that in 2007 some farmers had been caught unawares and heavy wheat losses were experienced.

Infected plants produce fewer seeds, and in severe infections, may die.

KARI, through Cornell University, is among the centres working to develop Ug99-resistant wheat varieties with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“We are working to prevent the spread of Ug99 to Asia, which is estimated to produce 26 percent of the global wheat crop,” said Njau.


Ann Weru/IRIN
Side by side: Ug99 infested wheat crop on the right and a more resistant variety on the left at the KARI centre, Njoro, Kenya
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Deux nouvelles variétés de blé résistantes à la rouille des tiges du blé
Side by side: Ug99 infested wheat crop on the right and a more resistant variety on the left at the KARI centre, Njoro, Kenya

Photo: Ann Weru/IRIN
Side by side: A Ug99 infested wheat crop on the right and a more resistant variety on the left at the KARI centre, Njoro, Kenya

For decades, wheat had been protected by a single rust-resisting gene but the rust has evolved to overcome this genetic barrier, enabling the disease to spread.

In 2005, for example, he said, the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative screened about 11,000 wheat varieties, of which less than 2 percent were found to have some resistance.

“We are developing varieties that in these other countries can act as a buffer,” added Njau. Ug99 was reported in Ethiopia in 2003 and later found in Sudan, Yemen and Iran.

“We have produced two varieties that are ready to go for trial. The varieties are undergoing resistance testing,” said Njau. KARI is collaborating with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre in adult plant research.

Seed varieties

The new varieties are helping to develop defences against the rust but more needs to be done outside laboratories to enable commercial seed production and to persuade farmers to use them, say researchers. Wheat is grown on more than 240 million hectares globally, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

In the Mau Narok region, some farmers have opted to grow barley instead of wheat, because of lower wheat output; barley also has a ready market as farmers are contracted by a malting company which also supplies them with inputs. But the price is fixed as there are few markets for barley.

“You also can’t hoard barley until prices improve… where will you take it and you cannot bake bread for your children to eat?” asked Njoroge.

With local wheat prices projected to be favourable due to a depressed global production, Njoroge says he will stick to wheat farming a while longer. “Wheat farming can be very profitable if you are able to sell a 90kg bag for about 2,500 shillings [$31].

“But selling is difficult because the price here depends on the brokers. Sometimes we listen to the radio and hear much higher prices than we get being reported. We need to be able to sell our wheat directly to the government,” he said. “Instead of the government buying wheat from outside, it should instead buy our wheat at better prices.”


Related stories:

YEMEN-HORN OF AFRICA: Government combats wheat killer disease

GLOBAL: Killer wheat fungus a threat to global food security?

GLOBAL: Gates Foundation moves to fight killer wheat disease

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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