By NICHOLAS WAITATHU NAIROBI, KENYA: Hundreds of thousands of farmers in Kenya have been put on alert following reports of an outbreak of a deadly fungal wheat disease in Ethiopia.Â Wheat farmers in the country are worried because wheat stem rust is easily spread by wind and has already destroyed more than 10,000 hectares of farmland under wheat in Ethiopia. Wind models indicate the disease could spread southwards toward Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda, and, though less likely, to countries in the Middle East.Â “We are worried because the fungal disease is very destructive and attacks varieties developed some years back to tame another fungal disease dubbed Ug99 that was identified in Uganda in 1999,” said Mr Anthony Kioko, the CEO of Cereals Growers Association (CGA). After the emergence of Ug99, researchers developed resistant varieties, such as Digalu, but it has now emerged that these varieties are more vulnerable to the destructive stem rust. The disease was identified in southern Ethiopia late last year, and by the end of March this year, it had destroyed an area of land that would have produced more than 500,000 bags of wheat. Ethiopia is the largest wheat producer in sub-Saharan Africa. The fear is that many farmers from various parts of the East African region, who have already started planting wheat in readiness for the rainy season that stretches up to June/July, are using the Digalu variety and would be hard hit by the deadly disease. Though in Kenya the wheat planting season starts in May, there are fears that farmers who plant a variety called Robin would suffer major losses if the disease strikes. In Ethiopia, farmers are counting losses of an average 50 per cent of their wheat crop, with the worst hit losing up to 70 per cent. Ms Ruth Wanyera, a plant pathologist at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) Njoro Centre, which is mandated to carry out wheat research in the country, says reports of the disease have been received, though it has not been identified in Kenya.
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