Agency develops virus resistant seed in war on deadly maize disease

Scientists at a State-owned research agency have made a breakthrough in developing maize seed variety that is resistant to deadly virus that saw Kenya suffer losses estimated at Sh4.7 billion last year.

The seed variety comes as a relief to farmers who have in past five years struggled with the disease — maize lethal necrosis (MLN).

Scientists from Kenya Agricultural Research and Livestock Organisation (KALRO) have developed the seed together with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre.

The disease affects maize leaves, making them to wilt at a critical stage when it has just tussled, stagnating the formation of the cobs.

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre president Boddupalli Prasanna said the resistant maize variety would be released in the market in 2017.

“The development of resistant seed is a major breakthrough in the fight against the threats posed by the MLN in Kenya and the region,” said Dr Prasanna.

The disease had caused fears of soaring food prices and maize shortage given its potential to wipe huge swathes of the crop.

Dr Prasanna said the resistant varieties would be released in 2017, largely because of the processes involved in developing, testing, approval and eventual release of the seed for multiplication by seed companies to be sold in the market.

KALRO director-general Eliud Kireger said a new milestone in agriculture had been achieved with the development of resistant seed that would save the country losses that have been witnessed in the past, improving food security in Kenya.

“This is the first step towards achieving food security in the country. The development of these seeds has come at a time when the country still grapples with food shortage,” said Dr Kireger.

He said the effects of the disease had been minimised in the current crop due to sensitisation of farmers on good agronomical practices such as right timing in planting as well as crop rotation.

“These efforts have borne fruits as in this year’s long rains season, there was noticeable decline of the MLN disease within the primary outbreak areas such as Bomet”, he said.

The disease that started in the South Rift has spread to other major grain belts of Uasin Gishu, Trans-Nzoia and Nandi counties.

Kenya is a food insecure country, grappling with a shortage of about 20 million of bags annually, relying on the cross-border trade to bridge the deficit.

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.