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Global surveillance detects outbreak of stem rust in Ethiopia

Wheat showing symptoms of stem rust (© Petr Kosina/CIMMYT)
Wheat showing symptoms of stem rust
© Petr Kosina/CIMMYT

After detecting an outbreak of stem rust on more than 10,000 hectares of wheat in southern Ethiopia, a global surveillance network is moving quickly to mobilise a global response. The strain of stem rust was found to be lethal to a variety of wheat called Digalu, which has gained popularity in Ethiopia because it carries resistance to other strains of stem rust and also to yellow, or stripe rust. "With such widespread planting of Digalu, we have not seen the major yellow rust outbreaks that were a problem in recent years and most farmers in Ethiopia have enjoyed bumper crops this season," said Bekele Abeyo, a senior scientist and wheat breeder at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). "But the widespread planting of Digalu may have opened the door for the incursion of a new and destructive strain of stem rust."

Abeyo explains that wind models indicate the disease could spread towards Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda. As a result, efforts are underway to identify susceptible varieties being cultivated in these areas. Officials are already reporting that a popular variety in Kenya, called 'Robin', is likely to be vulnerable, although there have been no confirmed reports of the Ethiopian stem rust strain in Kenya to date.

"The recent stem rust outbreak shows that rust preparedness is an ongoing 'arms race'. As pathogens evolve, new varieties must be developed," says Ronnie Coffman, professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University, and director of the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) project. "The East African highlands are hot spots for rust, but for all countries in Sub-Saharan Africa - where food security is such an issue - it is important that we continue to invest in the kinds of agricultural development partnerships that bring results."

Date published: April 2014

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