Kenya is among countries set to benefit from a Sh3.2 billion ($40 million) research initiative to curb a deadly wheat fungus that damages crops.
The UK’s Department of International Development (Dfid) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation said they will finance a project led by Cornell University that aims to find ways of combating Ug99, an evolving wheat pathogen.
In Kenya, the rust disease caused massive damage to wheat farms in Narok and Uasin Gishu districts nearly three years ago, triggering price rise in wheat flour products such as bread after a 90kg bag of the commodity shot up from Sh1,800 to Sh3,000 at the peak of the attack.
This was further worsened by a prolonged drought conditions that carried on into late 2009—leaving consumers highly disadvantaged in terms of more costly supplies that pushed up their overall cost of living.
“Wheat is one of Kenya’s most important crops, second only to maize. Our people depend upon it for food security,” Ruth Wanyera, a plant pathologist with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) in Njoro said.
The five-year grant, made to the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) project at Cornell will support efforts to identify new stem rust resistant genes in wheat, improve surveillance, and multiply as well as distribute rust-resistant seeds to farmers.
The Dfid will contribute Sh1.2 billion ($15 million) while the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will provide Sh2 billion ($25 million) towards the project.
“We cannot overstate the importance of this announcement on the part of two of the most important funders of solutions for addressing the causes of poverty, hunger and disease in the developing world,” Ronnie Coffman, a professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University and director of DRRW said.
It is estimated that as much as 80 per cent of all wheat varieties planted in Asia and Africa are susceptible to the wheat stem rust whose spores are mostly carried by wind over long distances and across continents.
“Against the backdrop of rising food prices, and wheat in particular, researchers worldwide will be able to play an increasingly vital role in protecting wheat fields from dangerous new forms of stem rust, particularly in countries whose people can ill afford the economic impact of damage to this vital crop,” Prof Coffman said.
The fungus was first discovered in 1998 in Uganda, the original Ug99 has also been found in Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen and Iran.
Records showed that in the 1950s, a fatal strain of wheat stem rust invaded North America and ruined 40 per cent of the spring wheat crop.