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March 04, 2009

Disease hits Kenyan wheat, banana crops

Kenya, with nearly a quarter of its 38 million people facing severe hunger, is now reporting a rapid spread of diseases affecting the country's vital wheat and banana crops. The crisis is being exacerbated by plummeting public confidence in the country's year-old coalition government.

Recent reports from Kenya's breadbasket region of the Rift Valley have confirmed what the country can ill-afford - the spread of a deadly strain of a parasitic fungus called stem rust that is threatening to wipe out the country's wheat fields.

Kenyan Agriculture Permanent Secretary Romano Kiome says the strain was first detected in East Africa a decade ago. But it has spread to other wheat producing areas in the world, largely because poor farmers here have not been able to afford the fungicide needed to combat the problem.

"It started spreading very fast," he said. "We have it in Kenya. We have it in Ethiopia, spreading toward the north [to] Egypt and it probably reached India. It is a serious concern. Stem rust, of course, is controllable with chemicals, but it is damn expensive. The only solution is to bring in new varieties that are resistant to stem rust. We are at a quite advanced stage."

In Kenya, most of the fields affected by the stem rust strain belong to small-scale farmers, who grow 20 percent of the wheat consumed annually. Although maize is the staple among most Kenyans, wheat flour has grown crucial to the country's overall food supply, especially in the past year.

In early 2008, drought and post-election violence in maize-producing areas of the country prevented many farmers from planting crops. Domestic maize production was so poor, the government had to begin importing corn to help feed some 10 million Kenyans facing starvation.

Meanwhile, residents in western Kenya's Nyanza province, hit hard by last year's poor maize harvest, are now reporting the outbreak of a disease that is destroying banana trees there.

Many Kenyans rely on bananas to supplement their diets. But the once-plentiful fruit is prematurely ripening and rotting on trees infected with a disease called banana bacterial wilt. On some plantations, yield losses of 90 percent are being reported.

Wheat and banana farmers say they need the government to urgently release funds to help fight the diseases threatening to impoverish them and to leave east Africa's largest economy in even greater need of food aid.

Middle-class workers say they, too, are struggling to put food on the table because of persistent high inflation, mostly due to rising food costs.

The country's growing crisis comes on the heels of allegations that top politicians on both sides of the coalition government have been involved in scandals aimed at enriching themselves at the expense of Kenyan taxpayers.

Last month, an opinion poll was released showing that 70 percent of Kenyans believe that the coalition government, formed to help the country heal from the ethnic bloodletting that followed the disputed December, 2007 presidential elections, has achieved nothing since it took power.


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