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  • African farmers could soon grow virus-resistant cassava

[CAPE TOWN] Researchers in Zurich, Switzerland, have successfully developed a strain of virus-resistant cassava, and now hope to train scientists in Africa to develop the technology in laboratories on the continent.

The study, which demonstrated that researchers can now generate transgenic farmer- and industry-preferred cassava, was published in PLOS One last month (25 September).

Herve Vanderschuren, the study's lead author, and head of the cassava research team at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, said the research team had developed a new cassava variety that is resistant to cassava mosaic disease and cassava brown streak virus, an infection that makes cassava roots unpalatable.

These two major viral diseases reduce cassava production in large areas of Sub-Saharan Africa.  

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, cassava is currently the third most important source of calories in the tropics, after rice and maize, and more than 800 million people use cassava as a source of food and income generation in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

The new strain is drought tolerant and can grow in a range of agro-ecosystems — including less fertile soils — ensuring that when other crops fail, cassava can still be harvested.

"We are going to establish the technology in African laboratories, and have local scientists develop them there," Vanderschuren told SciDev.Net.

Despite limited funding, the team were already transferring technology through funded trainings to laboratories in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa, and were working to ensure that scientists in Africa were becoming adept at using it, Vanderschuren explained.  

He said that empowering local laboratories could help change the views of some African governments on genetically-improved crops, as previously they had not been in a position to 'own' or monitor the technology, but now would be.

How soon the new cassava strain would be available to farmers was still not clear, Vanderschuren said, as key stages, including product development and local authority engagement, still needed to be undertaken.

On a wider level, Vanderschuren encouraged raising the level of debate to ensure improvements in the transfer of technology from North to South.

"If we are to guarantee that this technology spreads among scientists in Africa, researchers must share knowledge on genetically-modified cassava," said Chrissie Rey, a professor of plant biotechnology at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Rey said all intellectual property rights owners should be engaged before the technology is rolled out to the farmers. Policy issues must be addressed and GM laws developed to ensure technology can be transferred smoothly into African contexts, she told SciDev.Net

If these laws were established, she added, they would allow more trials and enable more results from varied field conditions

More field trials were needed to ensure the technology was robust, Rey concluded.

Link to full article in PLoS ONE

References

PLoS ONE doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0045277 (2012)