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September 19, 2010

Progress with disease resistant cassava in East Africa

East Africa scientists have announced a near break-through in the development of new cassava varieties that are resistance to cassava brown streak disease and cassava mosaic disease.
The announcements come at a time when a new initiative to commercialize cassava processing has been started across East Africa through creation of what is known as Cassava Villages, where the crop is semi processed and then sold to livestock feed manufacturers.

Dr. Edward Kanju, a cassava breeder with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and one of the scientists behind the work said the new varieties had not only shown very mild symptoms of the diseases but were also very productive.

"The varieties offer hope to millions of poor cassava farmers in the mid-altitude areas of eastern and central Africa whose morale – and livelihoods – have been severely dampened by the two diseases," he said.

The new varieties, if successfully developed will be a major win for the cassava commercialization project because the semi processed crop has ready market in the animal feeds industry which is avoiding use of maize to make animal feed because of rising prices.

Cassava can also be processed into other products including industrial starch, flour and ethanol.

Ms Mumbi Kimathi, the director of Farm Concern International, the nonprofit group that is steering the Cassava Villages project said the project involves "setting up 120 processing units across East Africa."

Scientists said they are readying to move the varieties from on- station experimental plots to the fields to test their tolerance and productivity under actual farm conditions before they can be officially released to the farmers.

Dr. Kanju said the three were selected from among 14 breeding lines that showed resistance to the diseases from last year’s growing season.

"The three showed mild symptoms, mostly only on the leaves. The roots – the most economically important part of cassava—remained untouched. They also produced up to 35 tonnes of the crop per hectare, which is more than triple East Africa’s average of 10 tonnes per hectare," he said.

The scientists said they will start another breeding cycle soon, crossing the varieties with locally adapted ones to transfer the tolerant genes. They would also try to identify other sources of resistance to complement the breeding work.

"We will also provide the promising varieties to our partners in Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Rwanda, and the DRC – countries already suffering from or immediately threatened by the diseases – so they could carry out their own breeding trials adapted to local conditions," he said.

The trials are going on in Uganda.

The scientists however said it might take a few more years before cassava farmers get hold of varieties that are truly resistant to both diseases.

"Truly resistant varieties that have internal mechanisms that either stop the virus from spreading within the plant or keep its population so low that it cannot easily infect nearby plants, are the most sustainable and cost-effective solution to these deadly diseases," said Dr Kanju.


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