A devastating outbreak of stripe rust in 2010 caused significant losses and economic hardship for Ethiopia’s wheat farmers, and underlined the country’s increasing vulnerability to the disease – a result of climate change and shifting weather patterns. In response, a USAID-funded initiative is supporting the rapid development and distribution of high-yielding, rust-resistant wheat varieties which are helping Ethiopian farmers to raise their production and achieve higher incomes and greater food security.
Visitors approaching Ada Village confront abundant fields of wheat stretching towards the surrounding hills that rise above this small community in the Ethiopian highlands. Blessed with fertile soils and a favorable climate, the verdant scene gives an impression of success and self-sufficiency – contradicting the rural poverty that many people often associate with Ethiopia.
This view would have been very different four years ago, however, when an aggressive new strain of stripe rust devastated wheat yields, severely stunting and weakening the village’s crops. Arriving suddenly with no prior warning, this destructive fungal disease caused losses of up to 50 per cent and farmers were forced to come to terms with the fact that they could no longer provide enough food and income for their families.
Ada was not alone. This new aggressive strain – known as Yr27 – swept across Ethiopia in 2010, benefiting from that year’s uncharacteristically cool temperatures and above-average rainfall. The country had little protection: the vast majority of farmers depended on highly susceptible varieties of wheat, and had limited access to inputs that could resist the disease and sustain production. Estimates suggest that 400,000 hectares (ha) were affected nationwide.
Threat to rural livelihoods
The losses brought misery and economic hardship for millions across Ethiopia’s wheat production regions. Food and nutritional security were seriously weakened – the price of wheat shot up and many families could only manage one meal per day. Some were forced to consume more lucrative cash crops, sell assets, borrow money to make ends meet, or work as laborers to supplement their income.
Befkadu Bizuayehu, a veteran farmer who has cultivated the fields surrounding Ada for over 30 years, lost his wheat crop completely when the disease struck. Forced to consume Tef – a cash crop that forms the basis of the Ethiopian staple, Injera – his family experienced a significant fall in income. The reduction meant they could no longer support their children’s education – a particularly tough decision for Befkadu who prioritized his children’s education after his own was cut short as a child.
Stories of hardship are commonplace throughout Ethiopia’s wheat-growing regions. Safia Suale, a mother of seven who has farmed her land in the districts of Digelu and Ticho her entire life was forced to borrow money and sell assets just to survive. “To cope we had to sell our livestock,” she complains. “But even then we still didn’t have enough food to eat after the crops failed. Usually, we were forced to survive on just one meal a day.”
Emergence in new areas
The severity of the devastation was compounded by stripe rust’s emergence in areas which had never previously experienced the disease and had few means of protection. Principally spread through wet and cold conditions, the disease took advantage of shifting weather patterns, striking parts of Ethiopia that are experiencing increasingly cooler morning temperatures.
Villages like Amauri, a community located two hours south of Addis Ababa, are now highly susceptible. When the disease first appeared, the village’s farmers were crippled by inexperience and unsure how to respond to this new threat. “When the rust struck it happened suddenly,” says Amaha Abraham, who cultivates land in the fields above the village. “We were completely taken by surprise and didn’t even know what it was because we hadn’t seen the disease in this area before. As a result we had no protection to fight it and suffered serious losses.”
Amaha and his neighbors turned to district extension officers but they were also ignorant about the disease and could therefore offer no effective solutions. The farmers had no option but to watch their crops wither and eventually die.
Tackling stripe rust
Protecting farmers against the destructive effects of stripe rust is the aim of a USAID-funded initiative that works to rapidly increase farmer access to improved varieties of wheat. Implemented by the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) in partnership with ICARDA, the project strengthens national wheat breeding programs, assisting in the development, fast-track testing, and release of rust-resistant varieties.
Large-scale seed multiplication of promising lines and newly released varieties takes place through private seed enterprises, seed companies, and cooperatives. However, the initiative’s novel feature is its participatory on-farm seed multiplication strategy which significantly cuts the time-lag between the development and distribution of quality seeds. Participating farmers are required to release the seed they have multiplied, making it available to neighboring farmers and thus achieving the time-efficiency needed to effectively combat a rapidly-evolving disease like stripe rust.
The varieties are promoted via farmer field days and demonstrations in Farmers Training Centers where farmers can see first the positive impacts of their adoption. A marketing strategy is also in place to promote adoption.
Since its inception, the initiative has extended its operations to 45 districts throughout Ethiopia, distributing approximately 618 tons of quality seed to over 13,200 farmers in affected areas. A further 19,258 tons have been produced and shared through informal exchange or formal sale, and 15.7 tons were delivered to small-scale seed producer associations. In total, an estimated 400,000 ha of land are now covered with new rust-resistant wheat varieties, benefiting over 67,600 households.
Average yields of improved wheat reached 3.7 tons/ha in 2011/12 and 3.3 tons/ha in 2012/13 – a significant improvement over the national annual average productivity of only 2 tons/ha. Regional variations demonstrate even more impressive gains: average yields of improved wheat reached 4 tons/ha in Oromia and 4.2 tons/ha in SNNP.
Farmers who have already benefited from the adoption of the new varieties are now approaching their work with renewed confidence. Solid performance over the past few years has allowed many to invest their hard-earned money – in vital inputs like machinery and fertilizer that can drive even higher productivity gains.
“The new varieties have changed everything,” says Kebede Fitie, a 72-year old farmer who has farmed his land in Gebete Village, Oromiya, since childhood. “They have given us the confidence to invest in better storage facilities, to expand our farming land, and we are now more willing to spend money on new technologies that can help us to improve our yields.”
This growing confidence does not mean the fear of stripe rust has subsided entirely – the devastation continues to haunt many Ethiopian wheat farmers. Yet this experience and the cautious risk aversion it has generated among many farmers could help to reduce further losses and suffering if another epidemic strikes.
In many instances this experience has forced farmers to seek greater economic security. Adelo Letta, a mother of ten who has been farming her land for over twenty years, is looking forward to a more productive future and expecting wheat yields of at least 4 tons per hectare this coming season. However, after her experience three years ago and the subsequent hardship brought on by the forced sale of her livestock, she has saved enough money to provide at least some economic security if her crops fail again. Selling assets like her oxen, she argues, should only ever be a last resort.
Although there has been some resistance towards the new varieties – some farmers continue to grow older susceptible varieties because they are high-yielding and a known entity – more and more producers are receptive to their adoption, convinced by their solid performance.
Despite this success, however, project leaders are far from complacent. Dr. Zewdie Bishaw, the Head of ICARDA’s Seed Section, who helps to manage the Project’s implementation, recognizes that constant vigilance is necessary to guard against future attacks.
“To combat rust long-term we need to continuously breed new improved varieties that can resist the disease,” he stresses. “We need to continue to look for resistant genes and lines, cross them, and make them available to national research centers so they can eventually release new varieties. This requires continuous investment and support. Rust will change and new varieties will be susceptible in the coming years, and so we need to accelerate this process and get seed to farmers quickly.”
The continual development of resistant varieties, improved seed distribution networks, and planned early warning systems will all be applied to counter the evolving nature of rust disease. Properly executed, this package of interventions will help ensure that the abundant wheat fields of Ada become a reality throughout Ethiopia.
This project was made possible by the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or implementing partners.