Maize shortage fears as disease identified

Dr Romano Kiome. Photo/FILE

A new disease is devastating Kenya’s maize crop and threatens the country’s food security. Already, 40 per cent of the crop in the South Rift is infected and the fungus causing it is spreading fast to the rest of the country, according to government experts.

The disease could wreak havoc on the early maize harvest, pushing prices above last year’s Sh5,000 a bag record. Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis), the government plant doctors agency, say the disease is the leaf stripe of maize, caused by the fungus Cephalosporium acremonium.

In a report to the Ministry of Agriculture, Kephis wants all the infected crop destroyed and the farmers compensated by the government.

It also recommends that the government buys all the grain from affected areas and moves it under security escort to milling facilities to ensure that none of it is replanted.

Kenyans eat 44 million bags of maize every year. If the harvest is poor, the effect is felt throughout the economy. Higher prices push up inflation — and the risk of social unrest. Often, the government allocates foreign exchange for maize imports.

Yesterday, the Daily Nation learnt that the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, Dr Romano Kiome, was still undecided whether to adopt the Kephis advice or await further research from other institutions such as Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) and universities.

Playing it safe in a delegated speech last week, Dr Kiome said the disease could have been caused by a combination of pathogens but warned farmers that it was threatening their livelihoods as well as national food security.

On Wednesday, the director of crop management at the ministry, Dr Johnson Irungu, told the Nation that Kephis and Kari were giving conflicting reports on the disease.

“When you see the scientists giving conflicting information, you have to start digesting and that is why the ministry is advising farmers to apply good farming practices,” said Dr Irungu.

The disease was first noticed in November in Bomet County, which Dr Kiome said was crucial to food security as harvests from the area reach the market in July and August when the national stocks are at their lowest.

In a speech, read on his behalf by Dr Irungu at a field day in Singorwet Location in Bomet, the permanent secretary said the disease had since spread to Nakuru, Naivasha, Kibwezi, Yatta, Embu and Rumuruti.

Dr Kiome said a team comprising experts from Kephis, agro-chemical firms, Egerton University, Kari and the International Wheat and Maize Improvement Centre was investigating the cause of the disease.

But a source at the ministry headquarters said Kephis presented a complete report.

“Maybe the PS wants to give other institutions a chance for their input or it could be a case of wanting to satisfy institutional rivalry among the organisations,” said the source who requested not to be named.

Kephis head James Onsando was non-committal on Wednesday, saying his organisation had given its progress report to the PS, who would decide how the information was used.

The Kephis report suspects the disease originated from a maize seed production farm in Taveta which had a similar problem in 2003 and wants it put under surveillance.

The disease could distort the ministry’s maize projections for the next few months which were based on early harvests from the South Rift.

The latest food security report by the ministry shows the country will have only 190,242 bags of maize by the end September even after factoring in early harvests.

Coupled with the late planting caused by delayed rains, this could further raise the prices of maize in a country which consumes about 3.63 million bags a month.

The Kephis report says the disease is spread by both wind and water, making it difficult to stop and recommends some expensive measures to contain it.

It says all maize in affected areas be completely burned and not fed to animals or reincorporated into the soil because the disease survives in seeds and other parts of the plant. (READ: Alarm raised over threat to maize yields)

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