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November 28, 2011

Danforth Center is partnering in combating lethal cassava disease

A November 16 press release by FAO calls for an urgent increase in funding, research, training, surveillance and other measures to help African farmers and breeders. In Sub-Saharan Africa, more than 200 million people derive 25 percent of their daily calorie intake from the starchy tuberous roots. In the East African countries of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Rwanda, Burundi and Malawi, 63 percent of households also sell cassava products to earn income for their families.

CBSD is particularly challenging because its visual symptoms on leaves and stems are subtle and hard to detect. This often means unexpected losses for farmers at harvest, having a devastating impact on families that are dependent on the crop for food security. Since farmers save cassava cuttings for the next crop, the disease is frequently passed on to the next growing season. Around the Lake Victoria region in Uganda, many farmers have been forced to abandon the cultivation of cassava where the disease is severe.

Roots infected with Cassava Brown Streak Disease

“I commend FAO for raising awareness of this critical problem. The need for increased research is clearly necessary if we are to combat this problem in a timely fashion,” said Dr. Claude Fauquet, principal investigator and director of ILTAB at The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, MO.

Researchers at the Danforth Center and two respected partner institutions in Africa, The National Crops Resources Research Institute in Uganda (NaCRRI) and the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), are working to solve this problem for African farmers under the umbrella of a collaborative project called Virus Resistant Cassava for Africa (‘VIRCA’). The VIRCA project has been developing cassava varieties with enhanced resistance to Cassava brown streak disease (CBSD) and Cassava mosaic disease (CMD). “The collaboration with African researchers is showing progress toward helping smallholder farmers combat these devastating diseases,” Dr. Fauquet said.

Researchers recently made progress toward protecting cassava against these diseases in a confined field trial in Uganda using an experimental model cultivar. The field trial was planted in 2010 following approval by the Ugandan National Biosafety Committee. The trial was harvested recently and the data are still being compiled, but initial observations by experienced cassava researchers have made the team optimistic that a virus resistant cassava line can be achieved. Once analyzed, the trial results will point researchers in the right direction for future development of virus-resistant lines of cultivars preferred by East African farmers.

VIRCA researchers are already working to increase resistance in two cultivars that farmers prefer. The first goal is to impart CBSD resistance to a variety called TME 204. This variety is very popular in Uganda and Western Kenya and has good natural resistance to CMD, but is very susceptible to CBSD. “Delivery of CBSD resistant TME 204 is the fastest route to address the CBSD epidemic,” said Dr. Anton Bua, the Ugandan Cassava Research Team Leader in charge of VIRCA field trials and communication in East Africa. The researchers are also working to impart resistance to both CBSD and CMD into Ebwanateraka, a variety called the “Queen of Cassava.”

The VIRCA project is a humanitarian partnership, and when a virus-resistant line has been developed and approved for release, African farmers will be able to freely multiply, save and share their planting materials without royalty costs or technology fees.

“We are grateful for the support of our many partners for this important project. I have witnessed the devastation caused by CMD and CBSD, wiping out entire harvests, leaving many people on the verge of starvation,” said Dr. Fauquet. “Our team is confident that the cassava we develop will improve the lives of millions of people allowing them to not only grow adequate food, but also to increase productivity so they might have enough money left over to educate their children and afford good medical care for malaria and other diseases they face.”

Danforth Center

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