Disease-resistant coffee stuck in Ugandan labs

Uganda is Africa's second-largest coffee producer Copyright: Flickr/gipukan (rob gipman)

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[KAMPALA] Coffee farmers in Uganda are missing out on improved, disease-resistant varieties developed three years ago, because of a lack of government funding to roll them out, say scientists.

New coffee varieties are resistant to fungal coffee wilt disease (CWD) — which has destroyed around 200 million plants in the country, costing US$27 million annually, according to statistics from the Uganda Coffee Development Authority.

But the Ugandan government has failed to allocate the US$1 million required to kick-start rapid production of new plantlets from resistant lines, according to scientists at the state-run Coffee Research Institute (CORI).

The seven elite lines, known as kituza R1–7, developed by CORI, have traits conferring resistance to CWD.

Pascal Musoli, chief investigator on the CORI project, said that the outbreak started in western Uganda in 1993 and has since devastated coffee plantations of robusta, the country’s main export variety.

"In 2002, the agriculture ministry and the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) surveyed the country to establish the extent of CWD spread and damage. More than 50 per cent of the plantations were found wiped out," Musoli said.

The scientists searched for resistant genes from cultivated plants in a large germplasm collection held at NARO and, by 2007, he said, had selected several traits found in varieties planted in the 1930s.

"Using conventional breeding we crossed these traits to susceptible robusta coffee varieties, boosting their anti-fungal immunity," he told SciDev.Net.

Africano Kangire, director of CORI, said that the institute wants to raise up to two million plantlets — which is the most they estimate they have the capacity for at the moment — through tissue culture.

"This is the fastest technique. From a single leaf we can generate more than 3,000 plantlets and it is  possible to produce in excess of 150,000 plantlets from a single plantlet in a year."

He said his group now needs to raise enough resistant plantlets to get to a point at which the private sector would be interested in scaling up production.

James Musule, a coffee farmer in central Uganda, said farmers are eagerly waiting for the new variety as CWD continues to ravage their remaining bushes.

"When we heard of it, we expected policymakers to quickly support its mass multiplication and dissemination," said Musule who chairs the Namayumba Coffee Farmers’ Association.

According to Okasai Opolot, the director for crop resources in the Ministry of Agriculture, the new varieties are a top priority for quick dissemination, but parliament has not yet approved budget proposals for mass multiplication.

"We’ve always budgeted for that item, but MPs haven’t understood the urgency with which those varieties can positively change coffee farmers’ prospects. We feel the pinch too," he said.

He said the ministry has requested the funds in the 2011/12 budget. "We hope this time round we shall get the money fast. We’re optimistic that will have it towards end of 2011."