Disease threat to vital maize crop

Maize lethal necrosis (MLN), a disease which has affected at least 300,000 maize farmers mainly in Kenya’s Rift Valley Province, could adversely affect harvests of the staple nationally if it is allowed to spread, warn experts.
Citing data from the Ministry of Agriculture, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation reported that some 15,732 hectares of maize had been affected by the disease, and that in severely affected fields total crop loss was anticipated.

“Unless the disease is stopped in good time, and that time must be now, this country will have no harvests of maize this season. That is how serious this can get if we joke around,” said Peter Siele, a crop science lecturer at the University of Nairobi.

Scientists at the state-owned Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services, have urged the government to destroy the entire crop affected by the disease as a control measure.

In the worst-hit Rift Valley Province, at least 70 percent of the maize crop has been affected, say government officials. The province produces about half the country's maize.

The disease causes infected plants to stunt, show chlorosis (turn pale) and die close to the flowering stage.

MLN occurs after combined infections by two viruses - maize chlorotic mottle virus (MCMV) and either maize dwarf mosaic virus (MDMV) or wheat streak mosaic virus (WSMV). No lethal necrosis develops if only MDMV and WSMV occur together.

“The devastation the disease has caused is huge and we can’t deny that. But what we are now going to do quickly is to stop it from spreading to other regions,” said Johnson Irungu, director of crop management at the Ministry of Agriculture.

“I don’t think the disease will affect what we have now in stocks or future harvest,” said Agriculture Minister Sally Kosgey.

According to David Nyameino, head of the Kenya Cereal Growers Association, the government should compensate affected maize farmers. 

About 2.7 million tons of  maize are produced every year in Kenya, where, at over 90kg, annual per capita consumption is one of the highest in Africa.

Prices rising

MLN, which began in the Rift Valley district of Bomet in September 2011, coupled with an erratic supply of maize seeds and fertilizers, may mean more expensive maize imports, say food security analysts.

At present, maize supply is already tightening and prices rising.

“Between April and mid-May, maize prices have increased by 10-25 percent in markets situated within the surplus producing areas including Chwele, Kitale, Eldoret, and Nakuru... In the major urban markets, maize prices are up to 25 percent above [what they were in 2011] and 40- 90 percent above the five-year average,” according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET).

According to the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA), about 75 percent of the short-term (three-year) average area put to maize production had been planted by mid-May, noted FEWS NET.