At an agricultural research station in Kenya, ingenuity, improvised tools, and a small group of talented, dedicated researchers and technicians using good science, are on the front line of the battle to prevent a potential multi-billion dollar crop disaster for the world.
At the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) the technicians are using a new transplanting method for the very first time. Any mistake and the seeds will die and the opportunity to test them for resistance to the new stem rust will be lost until the next season.
Speed and precision are vital since the airborne fungus that was discovered in Uganda in 1999 has now spread beyond the African continent. It is following a path that will take it to the great wheat growing areas of south Asia where farmers grow wheat eaten by a billion people. In the last great stem rust outbreak in North America in 1954, the fungus destroyed as much as 40% of the spring wheat crop.
The Njoro station is in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya, not far from the city of Nakuru and very close to the Equator. The new stem rust spores have been present in the air at the station for at least three years, making it the perfect location for testing wheat to see if it can resist the fungus. Called Ug99, the new stem rust is such a large threat to wheat around the world that scientists dare not transport the spores themselves to other test locations.
Instead as part of the CIMMYT-ICARDA Global Rust Initiative, which also includes national partners like KARI and the Ethiopian Institute of Agriculture Research (EIAR), the world’s wheat comes to East Africa. Similar work is being conducted at several sites in Ethiopia by EIAR. “We are committed to work with international partners to fight the looming threat of stem rust,” says Dr. Bedada Girma, leader of EIAR’s Stem Rust Task Force.
See Global Rust Initiative for updates/news and further information to battle the spread of stem rust (UG99).