Thursday, 30 May 2013

Kenya's reliance on maize is a disaster in waiting

The Maize Lethal Necrotic (MLN) disease is at it again. Unlike the recent past, where its detrimental effects were only felt in the South Rift, MLN is encroaching speedily the country’s food baskets in the North Rift- Uasin-gishu and Trans Nzoia County. Crop scientists are hard at work in field stations trying to come up with seed varieties that are resistant to the disease. However, this might take two to three years before a certified seed variety is in the market. Thus, it seems that MLN will be around for a little while longer. While the scientists’ efforts are laudable, it is prudent to note that Kenya’s absolute reliance on maize as a food security crop is a disaster waiting to happen. History provides two examples of such.

The Irish expected a good harvest of their main staple, the potato in 1845. However, a strange disease hit the crop and resulted in 50% losses and doubling of farm gate prices. Nonetheless, the Irish planted potatoes the following year hoping they would get better yields. The crop totally failed. The disease later identified as potato blight, resulted in a famine that saw a million people die due to starvation and another million migrating to the neighboring countries. It is estimated that the Irish population was depopulated by about 25%. Although Scientists managed to isolate the fungus that caused the blight, Phytophthora Infestans, it was not until 1882 that a remedy was discovered. This was almost 40 years after the famine had struck.

To a lesser degree, the Americans have also suffered the perils of over reliance on one crop. In the early 70s, Corn (maize) was hit by a blight that was later named the Southern Corn Leaf Blight. As in Ireland, the blight was caused by a fungus, Bipolaris maydis. Corn losses of up to 15 % were reported. This resulted in sharp increases of corn prices in the US. Considering that corn was also used as animal feed, the prices of beef rose sharply too. The rest of the world was not spared from these effects. The low production of Corn in the US exacerbated an already fragile world food market and hence contributed, though to a lesser extent, to the World Food Crisis of 1972-1974.

As new varieties are being sought to counter the spread of MLN, it is crucial that Kenyan farmers, especially small scale, be enticed away from maize into adoption of other crops that have enormous potential for food security. This can be achieved though market mechanisms that would ensure farmers make profit while feeding the nation. Crops such as sorghum, millet and cassava can greatly improve the farmer’s lot and boost food security. Secondly, Kenya scores poorly on household dietary diversity. There is need for an aggressive public awareness campaign on the contribution of other foods to the diet. By increasing consumer awareness of the importance of dietary diversification, there would be increased demand for foods other than maize. Lastly, because it might take a while before farmers move away from planting of maize, agricultural extension officers should be empowered to enable them reach more farmers and teach them good agricultural practices. This would go a long way in the prevention of MLN spread. 

All in all, it is pivotal that the role maize plays in Kenya’s food security outlook be scrutinized.

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