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Kenya opens Rust Screening Facility to fight global Wheat Threat

posted Oct 4, 2011, 10:45 PM by Puneet Goyal

Many small-scale farmers in Eastern Africa have given up growing wheat because of pressure from Ug99, a new strain of stem rust that turns fields of wheat into black stubble, with empty spikes that hold little or no grain.

Kenyans confronted this hunger challenge head-on on September 30 when Gideon Ndambuki, the assistant minister of agriculture, flipped the switch for a new irrigation project in Njoro that will provide water for field trials of hundreds of new varieties of high yielding, yellow and stem rust-resistant wheat.

“This field day celebrates Kenya’s opportunity to improve agricultural productivity, profitability and farmers’ livelihoods,” said Ndambuki. “The adoption of new technologies will positively impact productivity.”

The minister reminded the crowd that 80 percent of all Kenyans are employed by the agricultural sector, and the sector contributes 24 percent to the GDP. He went on to say that Kenya’s wheat supply does not meet the country’s demand. “In 2011, Kenya will need 900,000 metric tons of wheat,” he said. “Currently, we are on track to produce 300,000 metric tons and that means we are 600,000 metric tons short.”

More than 200 farmers, scientists, industry partners, government officials and schoolchildren attended the field day at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) in Njoro. The event also celebrated KARI’s participation in the international stem rust screening project known as the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) project, and KARI’s role as one of only two international stem rust screening nurseries.

Participants saw new KARI releases of sweet potato, canola, linseed, cassava, maize and sunflower, witnessed irrigation improvements, including a 1000 cubic meter water tank and sprinkler system, and toured the 12 hectares of land set aside for screening international wheat germplasm for stem rust resistance. Much of the wheat was heavily infected with stem and yellow rust.

KARI wheat breeders were particularly excited to showcase fields of two new high-yielding wheat varieties that are now available to Kenyan farmers—Eagle 10 and Robin. Both varieties are resistant to yellow rust and Ug99, and show no signs of infection.

The name of Norman Borlaug, the agricultural scientist who is credited with saving more lives than any other person in history, was on many people’s tongues.

Although the father of the Green Revolution brought food security to India and parts of Asia, he died before he was able to finish the job in sub-Saharan Africa.

In 2005, Dr. Borlaug came to Mau Narok in Kenya and was shocked to see that most of the wheat varieties he thought were resistant to stem rust had succumbed to Ug99, the new strain of rust that was discovered in Uganda in 1998. As a result, he mobilized the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) project and the DRRW.

In the intervening years, Ug99 has spread from Uganda to Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Yemen, and Iran. Ug99 threatens the breadbaskets of Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh and is poised to infect wheat fields in the US, Canada, and Australia.

Under the leadership of Cornell University, the BGRI and DRRW have put KARI-Njoro front and center in partnership with CIMMYT, ICARDA and 16 other project partners to mitigate the threat of stem rust race Ug99. Scientists around the world—nearly all of whom have spent time in KARI-Njoro—are identifying new stem rust resistant genes, improving surveillance, and multiplying and distributing rust-resistant wheat seed to farmers and their families.

KARI is a fundamental project partner, as scientists at KARI serve the world wheat farmers by screening promising wheat lines for resistance to Ug99. Wheat breeders from national agricultural centers all over the world send seeds of their most promising varieties of wheat to KARI-Njoro to plant in the field and test against the Ug99 disease itself.

“So far, we have screened over 200,000 lines of the world’s wheat at Njoro,” said Peter Njau, director of the DRRW project at KARI-Njoro.

“I can’t say enough how much the global wheat community owes to Kenya,” said Ronnie Coffman, the director of the DRRW project, who is vice-chair of the BGRI. “Kenya and Ethiopia are shouldering the lion’s share of screening for a disease that threatens 70 percent of the world’s wheat varieties.”

In six short years, three new varieties of high yielding, stem- and yellow-rust resistant wheat have been introduced to Kenyan farmers, three are in the pipeline, and 16 other varieties have been released or are in advanced testing by national partners in the rest of the wheat-growing world, according to Dr. Macharia Gethi, director of the KARI-Njoro research station.

“Now it is in the hands of farmers to adopt the new varieties and promote them in their fields,” said Ravi Singh, distinguished scientist for CIMMYT, who accelerates the wheat breeding cycle through the Mexico-Kenya shuttle program, where stem rust resistant plants are selected and sent back to the international center for maize and wheat improvement in Mexico for further testing. CIMMYT’s extensive breeding program in wheat depends on stacking multiple race non-specific minor genes for resistance. 
This season, 27,000 lines from 20 different countries are being tested against Ug99. This collaborative screening effort benefits KARI in selecting lines that are well-adapted to local conditions and resistant to stem rust. When found to be superior yielding, they can be directly released as varieties. Nineteen varieties released in eight different countries is a direct outcome of the screening activities in Kenya.

“Rust disease chose Kenya, but what you have chosen is your response. We are very happy to partner together to serve smallholder farmers and protect food security,” said Katherine Kahn, the program officer for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “I want to thank Kenya for their global leadership.” Along with the Department of International Development in the UK, the Gates Foundation has invested more than US$68M in the DRRW project.

During the field day, Dr. Ephraim A. Mukisira, the director of KARI, confirmed that KARI was embracing advanced science and technology in more than 500 agricultural projects. “Technologies that are on the shelf at KARI need to move out to farmers,” he said. He said all Kenyans would benefit from public and private extension efforts, and bankers and government policy makers who enable progressive agronomic and market infrastructures.

“Global development partners who work and serve farmers will lead to a new Kenya and a new Africa, one that embraces science and technology," said Dr. Mukisira. "The importance of wheat cannot be underscored. This field day has exposed us to the achievements of collaborative partnerships. You have ignited a process that will impact the lives of the rural poor and the entire population of the global community. I am sure that because of this work, next year bread prices will be half the price of today."