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AFRICA: Small Scale Farmers Vulnerable to New Wheat Fungus

Omer Redi*

ADDIS ABABA, May 29 2010 (IPS) - Smallholder wheat farmers are at risk as new mutations of a wheat-killing fungus have recently been discovered.

Close-up of wheat stem rust. Credit: U.S. department of agriculture

Close-up of wheat stem rust. Credit: U.S. department of agriculture

Ug99 – a strain of wheat stem rust first identified in Uganda in 1999 – devastated wheat farmers in Narok, an area west of the Kenyan capital Nairobi, in 2007. Nearly 80 percent of the crop was destroyed.

Over the years scientists have been able to combat the fungus by developing wheat with stem rust resistant genes. But Professor Zak Pretorius, a wheat pathologist at the University of the Free State in South Africa, has found two new mutations of the fungus that infects even the resistant wheat.

It is a discovery that has raised concern. “It was alarming for us that one of the resistant genes was not effective anymore,” Pretorius said.

Wheat stem rust is a fungus that enters the stem of a wheat plant and destroys the vascular tissue, which conducts water and nutrients up the stem. When this tissue is destroyed, the plant collapses.

Pretorius’s findings will be presented at the 8th International Wheat Conference being held in St. Petersburg, Russia from Jun. 1-4. He told IPS that the new strain of wheat rust pathogens were also able to migrate rapidly and could easily spread across Africa.

He added that while wheat stem rust can destroy wheat crops in weeks, three factors needed to be present for this to happen. The wheat had to be of a variety that was susceptible to the virulent pathogen; the environment needed to be ideal – moisture and heat are driving factors; and wind was needed to transport fungus spores to new fields.

He said South Africa had no cause for immediate concern as wheat was mostly grown on large commercial farms where farmers were constantly updated about new developments and had access to the correct control methods (fungicides).

But Pretorius said that smallholder farmers in Africa would be more at risk to the new strains.

Dr Ronnie Coffman, Director of the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat Project at Cornell University said the new mutations were a threat to all farmers. After its discovery in 1999, Ug99 has spread to Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen and Iran and experts believe it is now migrating to South Asia.

He said while fungicides could be used to prevent the mutations of Ug99 from attacking wheat, smallholder farmers such as those in Ethiopia will not have the means to purchase this. “There is no immediate emergency in Ethiopia. But if the mutant is present it could become epidemic.”

He said an ideal situation would be to produce a wheat resistant to the new mutations. “In Ethiopia, the best hope is seed availability (of resistant wheat) to farmers.”

Peter Njau, a research scientist at the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute, and an expert in wheat breeding, said that in the 2003 Kenyan epidemic, an anti-fungus chemical known as ‘Folicur’ was recommended, with hopes that the pathogen would vanish.

“But instead, it worsened, because most farmers, especially smallholders, could not afford it,” he said.

The chemical cost 37 dollars a litre, which should be sprayed on one hectare of wheat three times in a season. “This, added to other costs of production, became unbearable for poor smallholder farmers,” Njau said.

Aston Kirui, a wheat farmer from Katakala village in Narok, lost most of his crop in 2009 because of Ug99, though the Kenyan farmer’s field escaped this year. But his neighbour is not so lucky. “I have a neighbour who is going to lose everything this year. His farm looks like a field in an arid area during drought,” Kirui said.

“I am shocked that you are telling me that there is a new strain that has more resilience. I did not know about it,” he added.

The Lume Wereda rural district in Ethiopia has over 13,000 small scale farmers, and over 200,000 tonnes of wheat are expected from this area in the next harvest.

Ayichiluhim Mojo, a wheat farmer in the area has frequently lost his harvest over the past 10 years to wheat stem rust. “But I don’t know anything about the new types of wagg,” he told IPS, using Ug99’s local name.

Dellu Ayisanew, 58, a veteran farmer in Lume has not heard about the new rust strains either, but believes “there is no cure to wagg.”

Mentioning his harvest losses 11 years ago, Ayisanew told IPS that if another round of rust besieges his crops, he will give up farming wheat and consider another crop because he cannot afford the deterrent options.

Applying fungicide is an unaffordable option for most farmers in Ethiopia who represent over 80 percent of the country’s above 80 million population.

According to Dr. Firdissa Eticha, Cereals Research Team Leader at the Ethiopian Agricultural Research Institute, there have been many incidents of wheat losses due to Ug99 in the past. “But there are no indications of the latest races (mutant strains),” he said.

Head of the Wereda Agriculture Bureau, Negussie Gemechu, also said he has not yet heard about the mutant Ug99 and there have not been incidents of major wheat losses recently.

“The sowing season for wheat is yet to come. But in the incident of any Wagg, we will alert our farmers,” Gemechu told IPS. Almost all farmers in Ethiopia fall under the small scale category.

*Additional reporting by Nalisha Kalideen in Johannesburg and Isaiah Esipisu in Nairobi.

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