Maize killer that swept Rift resurfaces

A fatal maize disease that wiped thousands of acres of maize crops in Kenya's breadbasket area of Rift Valley threatening millions of Kenyans with  starvation last year has resurfaced in what scientists attribute to farmers failing to heed to warnings on planting and using seeds from previous harvest.

The disease, maize lethal necrotic (MLN),is spread by insects and wind from one plant to another.  When it first struck last year, farmers recorded over 30 percent loss in their yields. Now maize crops in Trans Nzoia, Pokot and Uasin Gishu areas of Western Kenya have started exhibiting wilting signs similar to the ones noticed last year. Other signs include the leaves and stalks of three month old crops appearing completely dry as if they have reached the harvesting stage.

Muroti Kiameni whose two acres are filled with maize says for the second season in a row he wont be harvesting anything. Last year he lost over 500 kilos of maize to the disease and it took an act of faith to plant this season. But two months after planting his crops have started to show signs of the lethal disease. “When I spotted wilting leaves I at first thought it was the effect of burning by the fertilizer. But every morning when I went to check the crops, I found the wilting was become more conspicuous and the crops were not growing as much as they should. The painful truth had set in. I had hoped I would at least recover the loss from last year,”he said.

Scientists now blame a host of factors for the resurgence of the disease. One such factor is the subsidized fertilizer and the delayed planting by farmers. Scientists had advised all the farmers in the region to plant their maize crops at once to assist their crops reach the developed stage before the disease was active therefore building resilience.
“When the rains started some farmers started farming right away, but some waited for the subsidized fertilizer and you know all the issues that go with it including the delay that goes with it. So when they were planting, when it was too late, other crops were already mature. So some which had the disease managed to transfer the diseases to the small crops that were still weak,”said Athanus Cherotich a researcher in Trans Nzoia.

In many areas of Trans Nzoia, considered the largest maize producing county in the country, almost every farm being affected by the disease, which has no remedy. “When you plant your maize after others have planted your crop will be disadvantaged because the virus from the older crops will be transmitted to your crops that is at tender age which is less resistant,”  said Mr Joshua Oluyali a senior assistant director in charge of Plant Protection in the Ministry of Agriculture.

The disease has also been blamed on fake seeds which have been rounds in the market with farmers especially in Rift and Central Kenya, who predominantly grow maize, having fallen prey to unscrupulous traders who have been packaging fake seeds and passing them as genuine.The Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service has recommended that maize crops affected by the new disease should be destroyed to avoid the further spread of the viruses.

Maize lethal necrotic (MLN), a viral infection made up of two viruses, maize chlorotic mottle virus and sugarcane mosaic virus.The disease is new in the country but has been reported in other parts of the world. Already, according to government estimates, last year the disease caused a loss of over 8,000 tonnes of maize and affected 4,200 hectares of farmland.

The disease is characterised by discolouring of leaves at the fourth week, mottling, flecking of leaves at tasseling and the failure of cob development. The affected plants also turn poisonous and cannot be consumed by livestock.

Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter