Wheat farmers on high alert as deadly disease hits Ethiopia

By NICHOLAS WAITATHU | Published Tue, April 29th 2014 at 00:00, Updated April 28th 2014 at 22:38 GMT +3

By NICHOLAS WAITATHU

NAIROBI, KENYA: Hundreds of thousands of farmers in Kenya have been put on alert following reports of an outbreak of a deadly fungal wheat disease in Ethiopia. 

Wheat farmers in the country are worried because wheat stem rust is easily spread by wind and has already destroyed more than 10,000 hectares of farmland under wheat in Ethiopia.

Wind models indicate the disease could spread southwards toward Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda, and, though less likely, to countries in the Middle East. 

“We are worried because the fungal disease is very destructive and attacks varieties developed some years back to tame another fungal disease dubbed Ug99 that was identified in Uganda in 1999,” said Mr Anthony Kioko, the CEO of Cereals Growers Association (CGA).

After the emergence of Ug99, researchers developed resistant varieties, such as Digalu, but it has now emerged that these varieties are more vulnerable to the destructive stem rust.

The disease was identified in southern Ethiopia late last year, and by the end of March this year, it had destroyed an area of land that would have produced more than 500,000 bags of wheat.

Ethiopia is the largest wheat producer in sub-Saharan Africa.

The fear is that many farmers from various parts of the East African region, who have already started planting wheat in readiness for the rainy season that stretches up to June/July, are using the Digalu variety and would be hard hit by the deadly disease.

Though in Kenya the wheat planting season starts in May, there are fears that farmers who plant a variety called Robin would suffer major losses if the disease strikes.

In Ethiopia, farmers are counting losses of an average 50 per cent of their wheat crop, with the worst hit losing up to 70 per cent.

Ms Ruth Wanyera, a plant pathologist at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) Njoro Centre, which is mandated to carry out wheat research in the country, says reports of the disease have been received, though it has not been identified in Kenya.

But to be safe, plans are underway to start an aggressive awareness programme for farmers on stem rust.

“Some farmers have been making enquires about the disease after reading about it from various quarters. We are advising them to be alert and in case of any detection, to report it to us immediately. However, we are intensifying surveillance in wheat-growing areas,” she said. 

The disease outbreak was discussed last month at an international gathering of the world’s top wheat experts in Mexico.

The scientists warned that stem rust could affect global wheat production, and it could trigger an increase in the prices of available wheat produce if the pace of its spread is not tamed immediately.

Kenya is a wheat-deficit country, producing slightly over 400,000 metric tonnes of the crop against consumption of more than one million metric tonnes. The deficit is met through imports from countries like Argentina, Russia and Ukraine. An attack of stem rust in Kenya would, therefore, worsen an already tenuous situation. 

Already, the depressed production is frustrating the manufacture of animal feed, which is made from wheat and maize by-products. The price of wheat flour in local supermarkets has also been rising since last year to the current Sh120 to Sh135 for a 2kg pack.

More than 300,000 farmers grow wheat in the country, but a series of outbreaks of destructive diseases has seen some abandon the crop for other high-value options.

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) have said the strain of stem rust damaging wheat in Ethiopia is likely to be similar to a strain found in Turkey in 2007, and in Egypt and Germany in 2013.

Mr Bekele Abeyo, a senior scientist and wheat breeder at CIMMYT, said it would be an uphill task for researchers to curb the spread of stem rust in East Africa as the region’s highlands are hotspots for the disease.

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