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September 09, 2009

IITA steps up efforts to save African cassava

The International Insti tute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), in partnership with the Institut de Recherche Agronomique de Guinee (IRAG), stepped up efforts to save native African cassava varieties from genetic erosion with the collection of 73 local cassava varieties from Guinea Conakry. The varieties are now conserved under ex situ conditions at the IITA-Genetic Resources Center in Ibadan, Nigeria. They will form part of a safety collection to safeguard the continent’s plant genetic resources.

“The conservation of local cassava varieties provides hope for future cassava breeding programs and helps guarantee food security in Africa,” says Dr. Dominique Dumet, Head of the GRC and Coordinator of the collecting mission.

The collecting mission was co-funded by IITA, the Global Crop Diversity Trust and IRAG-Guinea Conakry. Many local varieties of cassava, a major staple in Africa and a buffer against food crisis, are threatened by genetic erosion — a process whereby an already limited gene pool of an endangered species of plant or animal diminishes even more when individuals from the surviving population die off without getting a chance to breed within their endangered low population.

“In Guinea Conakry, for instance, about seven local cassava varieties are fast disappearing. This is risky especially for cassava that is a clonal crop,” according to Mr. Paul Ilona, IITA Senior International Trials Manager.

Both local and improved cassava varieties alike create a robust gene pool, offering choices for breeders in future breeding programs. However, the loss of genes due to the extinction of some local varieties might limit future cassava improvement programs. Besides, the endangered varieties might even hold key traits that could offer possible solutions to hunger and poverty in the future.

Ilona says the loss of native cassava varieties might limit the number of genes available for breeders to work with. “As breeders, anytime we lose (crop) genes, it hurts. That is why the conservation of native cassava varieties at the GRC is important to us,” he says.

Apart from cassava, the IITA-GRC holds over 25 000 accessions of major African food crops, including cowpea, yam, soybean, bambara nut, maize, and plantain and banana.

The accessions are held in trust on behalf of humanity under the auspices of the Food and Agriculture Organisation. IITA shares these accessions without restriction for use in research for food and agriculture.

The collecting mission in Guinea Conakry makes it the fourth country, after Angola, Togo and Benin Republic, to allow IITA to collect and share their germplasm with other countries, since the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture went into force in June 2004.

The Vanguard

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