- A high-yielding, drought-resistant wheat variety is contributing to Kenya's food security and economic and social needs. The "mutant wheat" enables Kenyans to make use of have drylands that for long have been unfit for agriculture, at best merely a grazing area for wild animals and livestock.
In collaboration with the International Atomic Energy Agency, Kenya's Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) produced their first mutant strain of wheat, Njoro-BW1, in 2001. Researchers used "mutation plant breeding", a process that alters the traits and characteristics of crops using radiation to induce mutations.
In addition to being drought-resistant, Njoro-BW1 is moderately resistant to wheat rust, a virulent strain of fungus that hits crops in Kenya and other African countries. It also produces high yields of grain for flour, with high baking quality.
Kenyan farmers have been able to harvest on dry lowlands, with reports of the variety also growing successfully in highlands and acidic soils. Most of these extensive soils have been abandoned by farmers for a long time, at most serving as pastures.
Miriam Kinyua, KARI's former chief plant breeder and centre director, believes that mutation techniques are Kenya's best option for developing better wheat varieties. Little research is done internationally to develop new grain varieties adapted to African conditions.
"The progress is crucial. This wheat is literally Kenya's bread of life," says Martin Dyre, whose family owns one of Kenya's largest wheat plantations. "The diet of this country is changing more and more towards wheat-based products, so the demand for wheat is growing."
Wheat is the second most important cereal crop in Kenya, after maize. But the country produces just a third and has to import two-thirds of its annual wheat demand. As of January 2008, global wheat prices were 83 percent higher than the previous year. The development of new wheat varieties therefore is vital if Kenya is to boost agricultural production.
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