Wheat Making a Comeback in Kenya

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Written by Barbara Bean-Mellinger

New varieties of wheat that were developed to fight deadly stem rust disease have yielded an added bonus: larger crop yields, Thomson Reuters reports

Oliver Nightingale is a large-scale farmer from a family that has been growing wheat and barley in Kenya for 107 years under the name Sasumua Agriculture Ltd. He harvested as much as 33 bags of the new Kenya Robin variety last season. That’s almost double the average yield farmers are accustomed to harvesting, even under good conditions without disease, he told Reuters.

“I have never seen such a high-yielding variety since I started wheat farming 20 years ago,” Nightingale said.

The fungus Ug99 virtually extinguished wheat farming as a livelihood for many Kenyan farmers. Named for its discovery in 1999 in Uganda, the deadly stem rust fungus can spread 1,000 miles by spores flying through the air. It spread from Uganda through Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt and across to Yemen and Iran.

“This disease is a real threat to food security in Kenya and the entire region,” said Virginia Gitau, a district agricultural officer. “Coupled with shifting climatic conditions, such emerging diseases can be real challenges to livelihoods.”

While scientists don’t blame climate change on the increase of Ug99, they say it does thrive in warm conditions. Although most evident at the stem bottoms, the fungus robs plants of nutrients and produces shriveled grains.

With funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and technical support from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, scientists at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center have been crossbreeding thousands of wheat varieties and testing them for resistance to Ug99. They produced eight promising varieties so far, but only two – Kenya Robin and Eagle10 – are currently available to farmers.

“Seed demand for the stem rust-resistant varieties is very high at the moment,” said Research Scientist Peter Njau. The institute hopes to distribute more than 660 tons of seed to farmers next season.