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Africa’s Food Security Threatened by Deadly Maize Disease

May 11, 2015

Scientists, policymakers, seed companies and regulators converge to seek solutions on maize lethal necrosis

plant-infectionNairobi, Kenya, May 11, 2015 – More than 150 participants will gather in Nairobi for an international conference from May 12 to 14, 2015, to share knowledge on the latest diagnostics and screening methods for the maize lethal necrosis (MLN) disease, and assess ways of curbing its spread across Africa to help mitigate its effects, particularly large-scale crop losses for smallholders and seed companies.
The conference is timely because quality seed is the pillar of agriculture in Africa and the world. It is therefore important to protect the maize seed value chain from MLN through concerted action by both the public and private sectors.

“The maize lethal necrosis disease has caused losses worth millions of dollars for farmers and seed companies in the affected regions in sub-Saharan Africa, where maize is both a food and cash crop. It is also affects food consumers since farmers have no maize crop to release to the market. This therefore calls for urgent need to find a sustainable and widely applicable solution as key stakeholders,” said Dr. Agnes Kalibata, President of Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

To this end, AGRA, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in collaboration with the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) have organized a conference on MLN Diagnostics and Management in Africa. The event will bring together scientists, policymakers, seed companies and regulators to take stock of current knowledge and best practice in managing MLN, and to build consensus on the actions needed to check its spread.

The situation is particularly critical as most of the maize varieties in East Africa’s seed market are vulnerable to MLN. In Kenya for example, the disease is widespread across most maize-growing areas causing an estimated loss of 10 per cent of national maize production per year (equivalent to USD 50 million). This means that Kenya and neighboring countries (DR Congo, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, South Sudan and Uganda) where the disease has been reported are on the verge of serious food insecurity, unless urgent and intensive action is taken.

“The profound implication of MLN for Africa’s most important grain – maize – is a reality that cannot be ignored. We have a responsibility to work together and control its spread, as scientists continue to work hard in developing maize varieties that can effectively resist the MLN viruses,” said Dr. Prasanna Boddupalli, Director of CIMMYT’s Global Maize Program.

The rapid spread of the MLN disease is a major concern for scientists, regulators and maize seed companies. The conference will therefore focus on finding practical solutions to strengthen MLN diagnostics and surveillance capacity. Other solutions include MLN-free seed production and safe exchange to non-endemic areas, which is a key step in controlling further spread and impact of MLN in sub-Saharan Africa.

“At AGRA, we have years of experience in working with seed companies to produce quality, certified seed. We hope to draw on that experience as we collaborate with all stakeholders involved in the MLN mitigation effort to ensure that Africa’s farmers continue to access quality, MLN-free seed to safeguard their livelihoods and food security,” said Dr. George Bigirwa, AGRA’s Head of the Regional Team for East and Southern Africa.

Collaboration with national agricultural research bodies like KALRO has been instrumental in the ongoing efforts to identify and develop MLN-tolerant maize varieties. The establishment of the MLN screening facility in 2013 at Naivasha, Kenya, by CIMMYT and KALRO in response to the MLN outbreak in East Africa was a welcome and much-needed intervention. Recently, a few MLN-tolerant maize varieties have been released in East Africa, and several more are in the pipeline.

“This facility was a critical breakthrough in our efforts to manage MLN. So far, more than 40,000 maize accessions have been evaluated and promising lines with levels of resistance to MLN have been selected. Our collaboration with key partners will remain steadfast until we eliminate MLN in Kenya and Africa. This is a commitment that KALRO will faithfully uphold,” said Dr. Eliud Kireger, Director General of KALRO.
Dr. Anne Wangai, KALRO’s Chief Researcher, who played a key role in reporting the disease in Kenya in 2011, adds, “The occurrence of MLN in Kenya was a new phenomenon that meant scientists had to initiate basic research to understand this new disease and seek urgent measures to manage it both the short and long term. Research will remain a pillar of MLN management, integrating various technologies that our farmers must adopt at their level to control the disease.”

The decisions from the conference will be critical for seed companies in Africa to produce and exchange MLN-free seed, and for helping smallholder farmers to effectively tackle MLN to safeguard their subsistence and livelihoods.

For more information, please contact:

Anne Wangai: Anne.Wangai@kalro.org (KALRO)
Prasanna Boddupalli: b.m.prasanna@cgiar.org (CIMMYT)

Media inquiries

Mark Irungu: Mirungu@agra.org (AGRA)
Virginia Ndungu: Virginia.Ndungu@kalro.org (KALRO)
Brenda Wawa: B.Wawa@cgiar.org (CIMMYT)

About AGRA:
The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) is a dynamic partnership working across African to make farming profitable for millions of smallholder farmers and their families. AGRA programs develop practical solutions to significantly boost farm productivity and incomes for these farmers while safeguarding the environment.

About KALRO:
Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) is a corporate body created under the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Act of 2013 to establish suitable legal and institutional framework for coordination of agricultural research in Kenya with the following goals: Promote, streamline, co-ordinate and regulate research in crops, livestock, genetic resources and biotechnology in Kenya, and expedite equitable access to research information, resources and technology and promote the application of research findings and technology in the field of agriculture.

About CIMMYT:
The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), headquartered in El Batan, Mexico, is the global leader in research for development in wheat and maize and wheat- and maize-based farming systems. CIMMYT works throughout the developing world with hundreds of partners to sustainably increase the productivity of maize and wheat systems to improve food security and livelihoods. CIMMYT is a member of the 15-member CGIAR Consortium and leads the Consortium Research Programs on Wheat and Maize. CIMMYT receives support from national governments, foundations, development banks and other public and private agencies.