News / Africa

Deadly Maize Disease Threatens Kenya's Food Stability

A farmer gathers arid corn crops on his farm in Kwale, Kenya, January 27, 2009.
A farmer gathers arid corn crops on his farm in Kwale, Kenya, January 27, 2009.
Jill Craig
NAIROBI — Kenyan officials are scrambling to determine how to deal with a spreading deadly maize disease.  Fears are mounting as farmers report losing more than 60 percent of their usual yields.

Last September, farmers in Bomet, in the southern Rift Valley, reported that a disease was destroying their maize (corn). By January, researchers found the disease, "maize lethal necrosis" that makes the maize plant turn yellow and dry up, was spreading to other areas of the Rift Valley and into central and eastern Kenya.

According to Food and Agriculture Organization crop production officer Paul Omanga a survey conducted in July indicated more than 64,000 hectares were affected and up to 80 percent of the crop was ruined.

"So if this disease is not controlled, it will affect maize production in the country significantly," he said.

Kenya Agricultural Research Institute principal researcher Muo Kasina serves on the task force managing this problem.  He says farmers are suffering from plummeting yields.

"The disease itself is completely finishing the crops . You may get less than 40 percent yields.  So it is very devastating, as of now," he said.

Maize lethal necrosis is the result of the combination of maize chlorotic mottle virus and sugarcane mosaic virus.  Sugarcane mosaic virus has previously appeared in Kenya, but maize chlorotic mottle virus has not, according to researchers.

Kasina says there is no known precedent for treating the disease.

"The problem is we do not have experience at all with this disease in Kenya.  So, for me, I really have no idea at all what I expect to see in the future," he said.

Researchers are trying to determine whether the disease is seed-born or if it is transmitted by insects, before they can decide the best course of action.

In the meantime, Omanga says they are educating farmers about the importance of crop rotation.  But he says more extreme action must be taken if they suspect the disease is present.

"Another one is ensuring that in an affected field, you destroy all the plants," he said. "You either burn them or made fodder for livestock.  The stems, the leaves, you make fodder for livestock.  But you should not leave those affected plants to stay in the field because the virus will remain in that field to affect another crop."

Omanga says that national food stability is the overarching concern.

"This [is] causing some concern because maize is the staple food and any threat to maize production is a threat to food security in Kenya," he said. 

The U.S. Agency for International Development reports the lowest income quarter of the Kenyan population spends 28 percent of its income on maize.

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