EA scientists fighting maize disease

Saturday February 16 2013

By Xinhua

A strange maize disease that first appeared in East Africa in 2011, has brought together the region’s research institutions to control its spread and also develop and supply resistant maize varieties to farmers.

The Maize Lethal Necrosis (MLN) which first appeared in Kenyan maize farms in September, 2011 in the Rift Valley Province, has fast spread to other regions of the country and into neighbouring Tanzania and Uganda.

This has forced scientists from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari), the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and Tanzanian and Ugandan national institutes to look for a lasting solution to the problem since it is likely to interfere with maize production and the realisation of the Millenium Development Goals targeting poverty reduction.

“We are screening a large set of diverse pre-commercial hybrids from CIMMYT and other public and private institutions to identify and validate MLN resistance,” said Kari’s director Ephrahim Mukusira, at a regional workshop on MLN and its management in Nairobi on Wednesday.

He said that the disease was a real threat considering that climate change was also affecting Kenya’s arable land which is only 20 per cent of the country’s total land mass.

Mr Mukisira said the disease has led to the loss of 30-100 per cent of maize harvests in Central, Coast and Western Kenya regions.

Dr B.M. Prasanna, the CIMMYT’s director of Global Maize Programme, said that it was cheaper to have a joint research team rather than having each country conduct its own research to a problem affects all countries.

“This approach is also taking lead by producing germplasm from Africa as opposed to importing from the Western world,” he noted. He said a solution was not far off following ongoing intensive research.

In Tanzania, the disease was discovered late last year in Mwanza, Arusha and Manyara regions. “We thought that the wilting of maize plants was caused by the stem borer but after close investigation by our pathologists, we discovered that it was MLN,” Kheri Kitenge, a maize breeder at Kari of Selian said.

He noted that with the help of pathologists from CIMMYT, it was discovered that the symptoms were similar to those found in Kenya in 2011.

Mr Kitenge said that since the discovery, they have been screening germplasm which are regionally available to help develop new varieties using resistant materials to release resistant varieties that is to be released to farmers.

In October 2012, farmers and extension officers in Busia reported a strange disease in their fields and after verification, typical symptoms of MLN were observed in fields in the border districts of Busia and Tororo where the disease had severely affected crops,” said Godfery Asea, a National Agricultural Research Organisation maize breeder.

He noted that farmers in Sikuda and Buteba sub-counties in Busia and Sikuda sub-county in Tororo County, Uganda, said that they first heard about it from Busia in Kenya.

Mr Asea said that the disease is now spreading to the central part of the country where it has already been detected in Iganga and Mbale Counties.

According to  Anne Wangai, Kari’s chief research scientist, pockets of the disease have been reported in Rift Valley and parts of Central provinces of Kenya early this year. 

She however revealed that the maize growing region of North Rift recorded low incidences of the disease hence giving hope that there may be no maize shortage in the country.

“We are currently screening a variety of germplasm where experiments are underway in a farm in Naivasha and very soon we are introducing resistant varieties,” she said.