Economy

Maize farmers warned to brace for virus war

An agriculture officer inpsects maize crop
An agriculture officer inpsects maize crop damaged by the MLN disease. Scientists have urged farmers to brace for a five-year battle with the viral disease that has significantly cut maize production. PHOTO | FILE |   NATION MEDIA GROUP

Scientists have urged farmers to brace for a five-year battle with a viral disease that has significantly cut maize production and caused Sh4.7 billion losses in the last crop year.

Stephen Mugo, a scientist with International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, says it will take five years for seed breeders to come up with a variety that can withstand the maize lethal necrosis disease.

“We are working with a timeframe of five years to come up with tolerant seeds to bring to an end the spread of this disease,” said Mr Mugo.

In the meantime, farmers will have to adopt good farming practices that include crop rotation to help break the cycle of the virus whose rate of infection is high in maize plantations.

The virus was first reported in Kenya in 2011 and its devastating effects on the crop have been increasing every year. Last year alone, it affected 10 per cent of the total grain production.

In 2013 the disease affected more 26,000 hectares of maize valued at Sh2 billion in what the government has termed as having a negative impact on food security.

Mr Mugo was speaking on the sidelines of an international conference on maze organised by the Alliance for Green Revolution (AGRA) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to specifically find solutions to MLN.

The AGRA President Agnes Kalibata said that the effects of the MLN can no longer be ignored as it has caused massive losses to both farmers and the seed manufactures.

“The maize lethal necrosis disease has caused losses worth millions of dollars for farmers and seed companies in the affected regions in sub-Saharan Africa,” said Dr Kalibata.

“Maize is both a food and cash crop and the effects of MLN also affects food consumers since farmers have no maize crop to release to the market. This therefore calls for urgent need to find a sustainable and widely applicable solution.”

Agriculture Principal Secretary Sicily Kariuki noted that there was a significant drop in maize yields since the disease was reported and that the shortfall has a serious ramifications on the national Strategic Grain Reserve.

Kenya Agricultural Research and Livestock Organisation in conjunction with the CIMMYT have established MLN screening facility at a cost of $4.5 million, to try and come up with tolerant seeds.

The disease has so far spread to other regional countries of Uganda and Tanzania, posing a serious food security challenge given the fact Kenya relies on these states to bridge the annual deficit on maize.