Science - March 3, 2005

Bulgarian wheat resists Russian aphid

The use of pesticides against the Russian wheat aphid (Diuraphis noxia) is not an option in Kenya. The pesticides are too expensive for many farmers, and they are often not even effective. A resistant wheat variety of Bulgarian origin seems to be the solution, according to PhD research done by Dr Oliver Kiplagat.

The Kenyan first tried to find a local wheat variety that could stand up to the Russian wheat aphid, but without success. The various Kenyan varieties were all vulnerable to the aphid that is responsible for reducing wheat yields in Kenya by between twenty-five and ninety percent. The Russian wheat aphid has been a pest in Kenya since 1995, when it probably arrived with a shipload of grain.

In the United States a wheat variety called Halt is resistant to the Russian wheat aphid. Kiplagat tried this variety in Kenya on a test plot at Moi University in Eldoret, but without success. The Russian aphids in Kenya would seem to have different characteristics from their ‘brothers’ in the US, as they also attack the American wheat variety.

Undeterred, Kiplagat widened his search and turned his attention to other wheat varieties: not only African ones, but also varieties from other continents. He exposed different wheat varieties to Russian wheat aphids that he had collected from different regions in Kenya. He finally found a wheat variety of Bulgarian origin that turned out to be resistant to the aphid. Kiplagat has now started a breeding programme at Moi University. The aim is to cross the resistance in the Bulgarian wheat into the Kenyan wheat varieties, creating a variety that is also adapted to the Kenyan climate and soil conditions.

Kiplagat, who grew up in Uasin-Gishu, the most important agricultural area in Kenya, feels personally involved with the farmers who are continuously faced with new pests and diseases in their crops. ‘It is disturbing to see that the average wheat yield in Kenya is two tons per hectare, while in Europe it is about seven tons per hectare. I’m very motivated to try and help Kenyan farmers to build up a better living as a result of my breeding activities.’ / HB

Oliver Kiplagat received his PhD on 23 February. His promotor was Professor of Plant Breeding, Piet Stam.

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