Kingbird released in Ethiopia to address new stem rust threat

Linda McCandless
Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: Farmers in Ethiopia are banking on Kingbird, the latest variety of wheat to be released by the Ethiopian Institute for Agricultural Research (EIAR). Kingbird is resistant to Ug99, the devastating race of stem rust first identified and subsequently race-typed as TTKSK in 1999, and resistant to TKTTF, a new race of stem rust identified in 2012 that raged through so many Ethiopian farmers’ fields in 2013 and 2014.

The scourge of wheat farmers the world over, stem rust can quickly turn a wheat field into black stalks empty of grain when environmental conditions are optimal.

“Kingbird offers new hope for resource poor farmers in stem rust prone areas of Ethiopia,” said Dr. Fentahun Mengistu, Director General of the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR), where the new variety was evaluated at multiple locations during the 2014 season and approved for release in 2015. “In Ethiopia, it is expected to replace the varieties Hawi and Pavon-76 in lowland areas, and complement Kakaba, Ogolcho, Shorima and a few other mid-altitude varieties.”

June to October is the important wheat cropping season in Ethiopia, when 90 to 95 percent of the country’s total cereal output is produced. Kingbird is recommended for planting in the lower elevation agro-ecologies from 1200-2000 meters (3937-6562 feet) above sea level.

“Wheat farmers the world over are threatened by outbreaks of new races of yellow and stem rust of wheat on an almost yearly basis,” said Ronnie Coffman, vice-chair of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI), the international network of scientists, breeders and national wheat improvement programs who cooperated on the release of Kingbird. “Crop diseases do not respect international boundaries. It takes persistent and continually evolving international efforts to protect staple crops like wheat on a global scale.”

Farmers in Ethiopia and Kenya like Kingbird because it makes good bread and because of its disease resistance. In addition to stem rust, Kingbird also has resistance to yellow rust, Septoria and spot blotch.

Farmers in Ethiopia rely on wheat as food for their families, as fodder for livestock, and as an important source of income. In terms of caloric intake, wheat is the second most important crop in Ethiopia after maize. Production was a record 4.4 million tons in 2014-15, with average yields of 2.4 tons/hectare. Ethiopia is still a net importer of wheat, but wheat yields in Ethiopia have been increasing since 2002 due to government initiatives that have increased fertilizer distribution, expanded agricultural extension in rural areas, and encouraged farmers to adopt improved varieties.

The global pipeline for wheat

To keep one step ahead of wheat pathogens, farmers are part of a cooperative network of scientists, breeders and fellow farmers who develop, test and recommend the release of new varieties resistant to wheat diseases. Kingbird, for instance, was developed in Mexico, tested and first released in Kenya, and further tested by scientists and farmers in Ethiopia, before being released there.

In the global effort to release Kingbird and protect world wheat production levels, surveillance experts at CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, used Geographical Information System (GIS) “mapping” to track and monitor Ug99 and the new TKTTF race of stem rust. Pathologists in Minnesota, Denmark, Canada, South Africa and Ethiopia conducted race analysis of isolates that were collected in order to identify the genetic virulence composition of the stem rust pathogen.

Varieties with genetic resistance to these pathogens such as the wheat variety Kingbird were developed by senior wheat breeders at CIMMYT in cooperation with national program scientists. Then, in a global shuttle system, wheat breeders at international stem rust screening nurseries in Ethiopia and Kenya evaluate candidate wheat varieties against Ug99, TKTTF, and other evolving pathotypes.

Kingbird carries APR (Adult plant resistance) to the Ug99 group of races, the new TKTTF race, and is expected to have broad-spectrum resistance to most new and evolving races. Kingbird was released by the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research (KALRO) in 2012, and targeted to the lowland production areas of Kenya. Under a purchase agreement with Ethiopia, KALRO made seed available to Ethiopia for testing and seed multiplication that led to the subsequent formal release of Kingbird by EIAR.

In an evaluation process called “participatory variety selection,” farmers in Ethiopia plant the most promising candidates of wheat in their fields to evaluate features such as yield, plant height, lodging resistance, seed color, marketability, and general agronomic and end-use acceptability by the family. This feedback helps scientists and national release committees make the final decision on the suitability of new varieties.

Kingbird was officially registered as a new variety of wheat in Ethiopia on May 6, 2015. Many farmers accessed the seed of Kingbird for planting in the 2015 season. Kingbird is still in the multiplication, dissemination and popularization phase of variety release.

Pathogens without borders

“The pipeline for development and release of new varieties has to be continuous,” said Coffman. “Plant diseases are like strains of the flu, they evolve rapidly. If farmers don’t have a continuous supply of new resistant varieties, and are routinely informed by a robust surveillance and seed multiplication network, they will be forced to use expensive fungicides and/or lose the fight for food security.”

The pipeline for development of varieties like Kingbird has been directed by the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) project at Cornell University, acting as the secretariat for the BGRI, since 2008. CIMMYT, the international Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), national agricultural research systems, and 22 other institutions globally assist in the effort. Generous support is provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK Department of International Development (DFID).


VIDEO: CIMMYT wheat breeder Sridhar Bhavani talks about the recently discovered virulence of TKTTF on Robin in Kenya, and Digelu in Ethiopia, and the new Kingbird release

#bgri2015: New variants in the Ug99 race group and new races of stem rust will be topics of discussion during the 2015 BGRI Technical Workshop in Sydney, Australia, 17-20 September, 2015.  #bgri2015 

BLOG: blog: New Kingbird variety introduced across East Africa; resists rust