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Naro raises alarm over deadly Irish potato pest 

There is a new pest that is likely to hit Irish potato gardens in Uganda with researchers worried it could wipe out a huge amount of produce.

Researchers at the National Agricultural Research Organisation say the pest, which is suspected to have come from Kenya, could have entered into some farms although they could not confirm how far it has reached.

Imelda Kashaija, the deputy director, incharge of Agricultural Technology and Promotions at National Agricultural Research Organisation (Naro) said farmers should desist from importing Irish potato tubers and seedlings from Kenya.

“We have heard cases where potato farmers from different regions are getting seedlings from Kenya, especially farmers from the eastern part of the country in towns like Mbale, and Sebei sub-region. This should stop because one can end up killing the whole crop,” she said.

Known as potato cyst nematode (PCN), botanically known as globodera rostociensis or globodera pallida, the pest has been quarantined by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in countries where it is spotted.

Kashaija explained that Naro learnt about the outbreak from Kenyan counterparts. She said surveys will be made in potato-growing areas to find out how widespread the pest is in the country.

“We found out that farmers living along the border of Uganda and Kenya exchange seeds. We are going to do research and if we find it is already in the country, we shall issue a quarantine so that we try to contain it before it spreads to the whole country,” she said.

According to Kashaija, a survey was done in 20 counties in Kenya and results showed that potato cyst nematode plague had reached between 80 per cent and 100 per cent in some of the potato-growing areas. The research also showed that the pest can stay in the soil for 30 years.

Kashaija explained that contaminated potatoes usually show early maturity, produce tiny tubers and are usually stunted.

HIGH DEMAND

FAO puts Uganda as the third largest producer of potatoes in East Africa after Rwanda and Kenya. Between 2010 and 2o14, the area covered by Irish potatoes increased from 36,000 hectares to 39,000, according to the 2015 Statistical Abstract from the Uganda Bureau of Statistics.

Over the same period, the quantity of Irish produced shot up to 181,000 tonnes from 167,000. Irish potatoes have had the highest percentage increases, both in production and land use, compared to other tubers such as cassava and sweet potatoes.

According to Kashaija, the demand for Irish potatoes usually increases towards the end of the year. Research carried out by the Economic Policy Research Centre (EPRC)  last year found that farmers were in dire need of potato seeds. The shortage of seeds in the country could have forced the farmers to import the seed.

Museveni receives processed potatoes from Tom Mugenga at Kisoro Potatoes processing factory. Researchers have warned of a new pest that could wipe out a huge amount of produce

The June 2016 survey known as ‘Investment Opportunities and Challenges in the Irish Potato Value Chain in Uganda’ stated that there were limited volumes of clean seed produced; the right potato varies; and some private potato seed suppliers provided poor quality.

“It is estimated that the country needs to produce about 25,400 tonnes (25.4 million kilos) of quality seed, estimated at Shs 28.1bn per annum,” the survey stated.

FARMERS SPEAK

Farmers who we talked to from Irish potato-growing areas said they have not noticed any strange pest on their farms but admitted that seeds are bought without giving much thought to possibilities of pests.

Lillian Chemutai, a farmer of Irish potatoes in Kapchorwa district, said there was a lot of potato produce and seedling movement across the Kenya – Uganda border.

“Brokers come all the way from Kenya to buy our commodities and during off-season, potatoes come from Kenya. So, it is hard to tell which seedling or tuber came from where,” she said.

Chemutai, who has a six–acre farm of Irish potatoes, also said they don’t have special ‘seedlings’ but just plant what they save from the previous harvests.

For Robert Barigye, a farmer of Irish potatoes in Kabale, said: “If my potatoes don’t do well this season, I can go to a neighbour or any market around and buy tubers, which I convert to seedlings.”  

Barigye added: “What I know is that farmers here are only affected by potato blight disease. I am not aware of those other diseases.”

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