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Building capacity to overcome wheat rusts

For the third consecutive year, scientists from around the world met at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI-Njoro) for training on “Standardization of Stem Rust Note-taking and Evaluation of Germplasm”. The course, conducted during 26 September-6 October 2011, attracted 25 scientists from 15 countries in the developing world, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, Nepal, Iran, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda.

The course aims to create awareness of the threat of rusts on wheat production; train wheat research scientists on new approaches in fighting the rust diseases (including genetics, pathology, breeding, and molecular genetics); and teach common approaches in identifying, scoring, and evaluating rust diseases both in the field and experimental plots. Practical demonstrations focused on rust methodologies and hands-on experience in recording disease scales both in the greenhouse and field, according to Sridhar Bhavani, CIMMYT Wheat Pathologist/ Breeder and course coordinator.

The participants had the opportunity to utilize the East African component of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) and Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) projects in Kenya. These are designed to monitor further migration of Ug99 and its variants; facilitate field screening of international germplasm; identify new sources of resistance; understand the genetic basis of resistance; develop durable, targeted breeding programs; and enhance the capacity of national programs. There was also the opportunity for participants to interact with international scientists, and for trainers to learn of emerging problems from the participants.

Training was opened by Joseph Ochieng, Assistant Director (food crops), KARI. Reiterating the importance of the course, Ochieng noted that diseases, particularly rusts such as Ug99, pose serious challenges to wheat production and subsequently, food security – a prerequisite to national security. He urged the scientists to live up to expectations and deal effectively with disease control: “You need to work harder and faster to stem the tide of disease outbreaks.”

Wheat-rust-training-068Besides technical aspects of the training, participants were updated on the status of wheat rusts worldwide, and how individual countries are dealing with the threats. Of the three main rusts (stem, yellow, and leaf), Ug99 —a stem rust race identified in Uganda in 1998 and 2007 in Iran— poses the greatest threat to wheat production worldwide. Since it’s detection, spread has been rapid, and over 90% of the commercial wheat varieties sent for screening at KARI-Njoro have been found to be susceptible, including all the wheat on the predicted path of spread between East Africa and South Asia. More disturbing is the fast mutation of the variant, with seven new mutants reported since 2006.

The annual course is part of the wider BGRI/DRRW Project in Kenya, an initiative of Cornell University that is being implemented by CIMMYT and KARI in collaboration with 16 other research institutions worldwide, and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK Department for International Development. As Zimbabwean participant Twege Soko said: “Devastating diseases such as Ug99 can only be tackled through such international collaboration and leadership initiatives of CIMMYT, DRRW, and KARI.”

Speaking at the end of the training, Ravi Singh, CIMMYT-Mexico stated, “You are now the ambassadors who will carry the knowledge and experiences back to your countries to create awareness with the policy makers and disseminate the knowledge and put the experiences in to practice.”