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Weed resistant seed to boost sorghum yields

NAIROBI, Kenya, Sep 19 – Sorghum farmers could see a boost in production within the next year, with the development of new drought-tolerant, weed-resistant sorghum seeds.

Scientists are at the completion stages of developing and testing over 50 improved types of sorghum seed, which Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (Kari) Director Epharim Mukisira said will address crop production restraints in the country.

“We see a threat from the striga weed. This is a weed that has actually reduced the yield of sorghum; 80 percent loss in yields is significant. To address striga quickly we want to use biotechnology to ensure food security,” he said.

Kenya’s sorghum production has remained low at just 130,000 metric tonnes compared to its regional counterparts like Sudan that produces 4.5 million metric tonnes annually.

Mukisira, who was speaking at a regional research workshop on Monday, said in order to improve Kenya’s sorghum production, input from both the government and private sector is necessary to sensitise more farmers on the crop’s long-term benefits.

“We are giving emphasis on sorghum because these are crops people have survived on for centuries. They have evolved naturally to be drought-tolerant and with the issue of climate change we can actually redirect more efforts towards these drought-tolerant crops,” he said.

Sorghum-producing areas in Eastern and Central Africa experience 22 percent of crop yield losses worth about 2.2 million tonnes a year, due to the striga weed infestation.

Often transmitted by wind, water or contact the striga weed is second to drought as a factor reducing the yield of staple food crops such as maize, millet and sorghum in Africa.

Africa Biodiversity Conservation and Innovations Centre (ABCIC) Executive Director Dr Dan Kiambi has been part of the research process developing the various sorghum seed types for the last 14 years.

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He said unlike genetically modified foods the new crop varieties are developed through a process known as ‘marker assisted breeding.’

“We identify a crop or a variety that has a resistance to the disease, striga and through biotechnology applications we identify a section of that plant that has the resistance and transfer that section through conventional breeding to other varieties,” he explained.

Sorghum is the second most popular cereal behind maize in Africa, and is proving to be a popular choice for local small-scale farmers, for its ability to thrive in minimum rainfall.

Although most farmers who grow Gadam Sorghum usually sell it to beer manufacturers, some prefer to use it as a staple food.

Kiambi said the ready market, good pricing and nutritious value, should be incentive enough for farmers to consider cultivating sorghum as a major commercial crop.

The newly developed sorghum seed types are expected to be released into the regional market by the end of next year.

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