Gates Foundation Funds 19 Disease-Resistant Cassava Varieties

Gates Foundation Funds 19 Disease-Resistant Cassava Varieties

The first batch of 19 disease-resistant cassava varieties grown in a genetics technology lab in Kenya has been released in five African countries, according to SciDev.net.

Up to 30 million smallholder cassava farmers in East and Central Africa could benefit from the project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the report said.

The project has mass-produced genetically modified plants resistant to the crop’s two devastating viral diseases — cassava mosaic disease and cassava brown streak disease.

Cassava brown streak disease affects root quality and renders cassava unfit for human consumption and animal consumption. Mosaic disease can lead to total yield loss. The diseases cost farmers an estimated $1 billion a year.

Five countries received the plants — Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda.

The countries are sharing their top five varieties resistant to the diseases as part of a project — the New Cassava Varieties and Clean Seed to Combat CBSD and CMD. The Gates Foundation-funded project began in 2012.

The first consignment of 19 varieties in the form of lab-created small plants were released March 14 by Genetics Technologies International Ltd., a tissue culture-based lab in Kenya. Each country received 300 plants per variety.

Six more varieties are undergoing mass multiplication and will be shared later, said Leena Tripathi, Kenya representative for International Institute for Tropical Agriculture.

“Cassava is a very important crop in tropical countries,” Tripathi said. “More than 800 million farmers grow cassava as their staple food in the tropics, including Africa.”

Edward Kanju, project coordinator for Kenya, said each of the five countries will evaluate 20 new cassava varieties to identify those well adapted to local conditions and those that are acceptable to local farming communities.

A seed certification system for cassava will be piloted in Tanzania as part of the project to ensure that farmers grow only disease-resistant varieties, Kanju said.

“Most of the cassava-growing countries don’t have any official seed certification scheme. We want to try that in Tanzania” he said.

Simon Gichuki, the coordinator of the biotechnology center at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, said, “There are other supportive projects such as virus-resistant cassava for Africa looking at providing transgenic solutions to both diseases using biotechnology tools.” Virus-resistant cassava for Africa is also being grown in labs in Kenya and Uganda.

Farmers should adopt practices that reduce the spread of the diseases, said Daniel Karanja, a plant pathologist in Kenya for CABI, a worldwide organisation that addresses problems of agriculture and the environment.

Quarantine and legislation should be followed when sharing resistant varieties across countries to avoid introducing new strains of the diseases, Karanja said.