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  • Nepal scores in fight against wheat rust

[KATHMANDU] Wheat breeders in Nepal have won a global award for their efforts to control the spread of wheat rust, a potentially crippling fungal disease.

The Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) honoured five researchers from the Nepal Agricultural Research Council (NARC) at a ceremony in Beijing on 2 September. They received the first gene stewardship award for speedy development and dissemination of rust-resistant wheat strains.

BGRI was founded in 2005 to spearhead global resilience against Ug99, an especially aggressive strain of the fungus that forms lethal red lesions on plant stems and is capable of wiping out entire standing crops in a region.

Ug99 – named for its discovery in Uganda in 1999 – spread to Ethiopia and Kenya, blew across the Arabian peninsula and reached Iran in 2008, threatening South Asia’s wheat crop.

Wheat farming was introduced in Nepal in the 1960s and production has expanded in the mid and far-western regions to be worth US$ 575 million in 2012.

Since the establishment of NARC's National Wheat Research Programme (NWRP) in 1972, over 30 improved wheat varieties have been released and are being used in 97 per cent of fields. The NWRP has supported a sixfold increase in wheat area and a 15-fold increase in production.

NWRP received support from the International Wheat and Maize Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), Mexico, BGRI and several international academic institutions.

Nepal released the first Ug99-resistant variety of high-yielding wheat, named Vijay, in 2010, and has since produced enough seed to cover 5.4 per cent of the crop area in the country.

By protecting itself, Nepal prevents the spread of airborne spores across national boundaries, and thus protects the whole region, explained Arun Kumar Joshi, South Asia regional coordinator for CIMMYT in Kathmandu.

Joshi told SciDev.Net the achievement was commendable for a country where "human, capital and infrastructure resources are weaker compared to many other countries, like India and China."

Nepal's participatory approach expedited delivery, explained Madan Raj Bhatta, senior wheat breeder and a recipient of the award who coordinated the NWRP from 1980-2010. "Before releasing any new variety, it was evaluated in the farmers' fields and farmers' views were collected," Bhatta told SciDev.Net.

His team disseminated several Ug99-resistant seed varieties across 56 of 75 districts, informing farmers of traits and empowering them to select varieties. 

Among the 29 competitors for the BGRI award were Kenya – the global hub for Ug99 research – as well as neighbouring Bangladesh, India and China, Joshi said.

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