There is renewed hope for wheat farming in Kenya following the release of two wheat varieties that are more resistant to wheat stem rust Ug99.
The deadly mutant fungus, Ug99, named after its discovery in Uganda in 1999, is spread by wind-borne spores. By 2003, most of Kenyan's wheat varieties had been identified as susceptible to the fungus which causes infected plants to produce fewer seeds or die.
The two new wheat varieties, dubbed Eagle10 and Robin, were developed by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) after years of research.
Though not nearly as widely grown as maize or rice, wheat nevertheless is an important component of the country’s domestic food production - being grown on about 4 percent of the country’s arable land (160,000 hectares out of 4,000,000 hectares of arable land), according Peter Njau, a plant breeder at KARI.
Since 2005, KARI has screened over 200,000 wheat germplasms, of which only 10 percent were found to have some resistance to Ug99. Of the 10 percent, only a handful could adapt to the Kenyan environment, according to KARI plant breeder Peter Njau.
The selected varieties then underwent advanced trials in wheat growing areas and at the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (KEPHIS).
"The first step of screening involved identifying some wheat germplasm which were resistant," he explained.
Then, the experts evaluated these lines, checking if they would be suitable for commercial production in Kenya. Those which looked like a good bet were then developed further for the Kenyan farmer.
"That was how Eagle10 and Robin wheat varieties were born," explained Njau at the KARI centre in Njoro, Rift Valley. "Both varieties have very good baking and bread-making qualities."
Only time will tell…
Though the new varieties were found by scientists at KARI to be resistant to both Ug99 and yellow rust, only time will tell if they will offer satisfaction to Kenyan wheat farmers.
KARI in Njoro is one of only a handful of screening centres for stem rust resistance around the world.
Eagle10 was selected for lower altitude regions such as lower Narok, Naivasha and Laikipia in Rift Valley, while Robin is for the medium to high altitude areas like Njoro, Mau Narok and Timau.
Uncontrolled, wheat rust, which requires intensive chemical control, may account for yield losses of 50-70 percent. The high cost of chemicals is a barrier to wheat farming for most smallholders.
Farmers who attended a field day at KARI expressed optimism about the new wheat breeds.
|A close-up of wheat stem rust|
“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," said Peter Thiongo, a former wheat farmer.
"I planted corn in my five-acre farm, where I had for many years been growing wheat, but I am optimistic that the new varieties will save me money which I spent on fungicides, and I am ready to plant when seeds are available," he said.
KARI is working with the Kenya Seeds Company to multiply the seeds. "We are expecting to have produced more than 10 tons of the new seed variety by the end of this year," said KARI director Ephram Mukisira.
KARI has set aside 12 hectares in Njoro exclusively for wheat breeding.
"I urge farmers to go back to wheat farming knowing that the new varieties have a much lower cost of production."
Farmers have been abandoning wheat farming over the last few years due to losses caused by Ug99. Production costs went up by 40 percent between 2001 and 2011 with farmers this year having to spray wheat with pesticides three times a season at a cost of Sh9,000 (US$90) per acre.
Kenya imports about 60 percent of its wheat needs, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. Population growth and a decrease in domestic production, with some farmers switching to maize, to some extent explains this figure.
At present, KARI is screening another 27,000 wheat lines with a view to finding better yielding lines which will be released directly as varieties.
Nineteen varieties, screened earlier at KARI in Njoro, have already been released to eight countries.
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