Kenya wheat team wins prestigious 2015 Gene Stewardship Award

Linda McCandless
Friday, September 18, 2015

Sydney, Australia: Three Kenyans were awarded the 2015 BGRI Gene Stewardship Award and received the coveted “Norman Borlaug” statue for their work in wheat during the 2015 Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) Technical Workshop in Sydney, Australia.

Ruth Wanyera, senior plant pathologist, Peter Njau, senior wheat breeder, and Godwin Macharia, wheat breeder — three members of the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization, or KALRO — were the named recipients. Eliud Kireger, Director General of KALRO, and nominator Sridar Bhavani, wheat breeder from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), were on hand to join in the acceptance of the award.

“The Kenya team is highly deserving of this award,” said Ronnie Coffman, vice-chair of the BGRI, and director of International Programs at Cornell. “Over the last eight years, they have built a collaborative platform in Njoro to test wheat germplasm from all over the world, and developed the capacity of a rust screening program that has successfully tested thousands and thousands of the world’s wheat varieties against rust. Along with their fellow East Africans in Ethiopia — who won the Gene Stewardship Award in 2014 — they are at Ground Zero in the global effort to develop and deploy durably rust resistant wheat varieties and keep the world wheat-secure.”

“The KALRO team contributes significantly to Kenyan wheat security. From 2009-2013, the KALRO wheat team helped increase the area under wheat production in Kenya from 160,000 ha to 180,000 ha and productivity in individual farmers’ fields from 2.5 to 3.0 t/ha — an amazing achievement,” noted Eliud Kireger, Director General of KALRO, in a video produced for the occasion at .

The BGRI Gene Stewardship Award recognizes a researcher or team of researchers serving a national breeding program or other nationally based institution who demonstrate excellence in the development, multiplication and/or release of rust resistant wheat varieties through appropriate means that encourage diversity and complexity of resistance, promote the durability of the materials, and help implement the BGRI’s goal of responsible gene deployment and stewardship.

The BGRI Gene Stewardship Selection Committee lauded the KALRO team’s ability to:  generate reliable phenotypic data that has resulted in the identification and characterization of new genes resistant to Ug99; develop and release rust resistant wheat varieties; multiply seed of resistant varieties with diverse genetic backgrounds; conduct disease surveillance activities; facilitate shuttle breeding activities with CIMMYT/Mexico; use farmers’ field days and extension to promote and demonstrate the new varieties to smallholder farmers; cooperate with neighboring national wheat research programs to share, test and deploy new varieties; and conduct annual training to build the capacity of national agricultural research partners around the world.

“It takes much longer for breeders to develop and test new varieties than it does for the Ug99 stem rust fungus to mutate,” said Coffman. “To achieve any long-lasting defense, BGRI objective leaders encourage breeders to release new varieties that do not rely on single major genes for resistance. In the never-ending battle against pathogens without borders, combinations of major and minor resistance genes slow rust pathogen predation.”