Kenya experts to develop wheat disease resistant crop

Stem rust cost Kenya about 15 per cent of its wheat crop last year. Photo/FILE

Scientists at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and their colleagues from several countries are nearing success in developing wheat strains resistant to a disease that threatens crops around the world, a US researcher has told Nation.

“KARI's role is absolutely critical,” declares Marty Carson, research leader at the US Department of Agriculture's Cereal Disease Laboratory. “It's important not just to USDA's efforts but to all countries that have Ug99 or are in the path of Ug99.”

Mr Carson is referring to a wheat fungus first found in Uganda in 1999 that has since spread throughout East Africa.

Ug99 is expected to reach India soon as well as other wheat-dependent Asian countries.

Stem rust, as the deadly fungus is also known, cost Kenya about 15 per cent of its wheat crop last year, leading to increased imports and a rise in the price of bread.

KARI provides and monitors nurseries where several new types of seed potentially resistant to Ug99 have been planted.

“We couldn't screen the amount of seed we do if it weren't for KARI,” Mr Carson says.

He predicts that super strains of wheat impervious to stem rust and other fungal diseases could become commercially available in three or four years.

It takes considerable time to reproduce large quantities of the new seeds, Mr Carson notes.

Kenya and other countries will then have to conduct regulatory reviews of the wheat strains.

The KARI experiments, conducted in collaboration with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre in Mexico, could help avert famine in Kenya and other countries, Mr Carson says.

The reports of progress in combating wheat killers follow the United Nations' recent announcement that rinderpest, a disease fatal to cattle, has been eliminated worldwide.