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August 09, 2010

Devastating new maize disease spotted in Uganda

by Esther Nakkazi

A new maize disease has emerged in Uganda, threatening the food security and livelihoods of millions of people.

The Rough Dwarf maize disease, which experts say has not been reported anywhere else in Africa, was first spotted early this year in Masindi District and Namulonge in the western and central parts of Uganda respectively, and is now causing panic among farmers of Africa’s major staple food crop.

Scientists say they have no immediate solution to the devastating disease.

“The only line of defence we have is to sensitise farmers on how to contain the spread of the disease. We advise them to keep uprooting and burning the infected crop,” said Godfrey Osea, head plant breeder at the National Crop Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI).

The Rough Dwarf disease leads to a total loss of the crop it attacks.

“We do not know what causes it but I know it is a major threat to maize production; experts say they do not know much about it,” said John Kityo, a maize farmer in Namulonge.

Maize is at the core of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania’s agriculture, contributing 20-30 per cent of the GDP and providing 70 per cent of rural employment in these countries’ economies.

Maize is also a major food crop with over 80 per cent of rural and urban populations depending on it as their major source of calories in Kenya, Tanzania and a lesser extent, in Uganda.

The disease has not yet been fully characterised to understand its causative pathogen, strain and rate or scope of infection around Uganda or the East African region.

“Being a new disease, we have not started developing resistant varieties; We are yet to understand how the vector thrives before we can characterise it in the laboratories, and this will come in stages,” Dr Osea said.

Initial indications show that the infected maize crop displays wrinkled leaves and has stunted growth, which includes lacking cobs.

It is thought that the vector, a leaf hopper, transmits the infection through eggs.

The only hope is for experts to develop a maize variety that is resistant to the disease with time as they have done with the maize streak virus, graleaf spot, leaf bright and ear rots.

The maize streak virus was isolated between 1991 and 1992 by one of Uganda’s leading maize researchers and current director general of National Agricultural Research Organisation, Denis Kyetere.

So far 11 varieties of maize have been developed by NaCRRI in partnership with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute and international partners.

The current average yield in Uganda is 1.74 metric tonnes per hectare per annum, having risen by over 24 per cent from 1.2 metric tonnes per hectare due to improved varieties that are higher yielding, early maturing, and more drought tolerant.

The emergence of the disease could not have come at a worse time as prices of maize have nosedived throughout Uganda, after a bumper harvest enabled by the heavy rains in the first quarter of the year.

Prices of maize on the market are stuck at Ush120 ($0.05) per kilogramme for the second season running, from Ush1000 ($0.50) so farmers are stuck with the bumper harvest, with those who have storage facilities waiting for the prices to rise.

The East African

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