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New cassava variety to offer farmers relief

By Wainaina Wambu | June 9th 2020

After a decade of toil, Kenyan researchers have developed disease-resistant cassava tipped to raise food security and create wealth for rural families.  

The researchers are hoping for a smooth sail against regulatory hurdles that have slowed the roll out of other Genetically Modified (GMO) crops such as cotton and maize.

Kenyan researchers are seeking approval to introduce the new variety that is resistant to the cassava brown streak disease.’

The Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) made an application to NBA seeking environmental release (open field cultivation) that would allow breeding and multiplication of the variety before it is made available to farmers.

NBA has now invited public comments after which national performance trials for the variety can start. Kenya imposed a GMO ban in 2012 following a controversial study that alleged GMOs cause cancer.

Since last year, Cabinet has been expected to give a verdict on whether to lift the ban. Instead, the government has adopted a case-by-case policy with focus recently being put on BT cotton and now cassava.

Improved awareness

Lead scientist Douglas Miano, who is in charge of developing the tuber under Virus Resistant Cassava for Africa (VIRCA plus project), told Financial Standard that awareness of GMO crops has improved.

“Cotton and maize have created a lot of awareness and the discussions have advanced. For this reason, we expect things will be different. We are now hoping for a smooth roll out unlike the hurdles faced by cotton and maize,” Dr Miano said.

There are two types of diseases that affect cassavas - the cassava mosaic disease (CMD) and the CBSD.

Kalro Biotechnology Centre Director Catherine Taracha said the former can be managed easily but the latter has proved a headache for many years.

She explained that CMD causes stunting of the cassava plant and crinkling of the leaves while CBSD causes malformation of the roots.

It is only when harvesting the cassava that the rot on the roots can be observed. “The disease has serious implications for smallholder cassava farmers. Losses suffered by cassava farmers go up to 70 per cent of production costs,” she said. 

Extensive studies have proved sustained resistance by the new cassava variety. “We have planted it in different areas, over different cropping cycles and found out that this cassava still maintains resistance to disease,” Dr Taracha said.

Last year, Kenya produced 973,000 tonnes of cassava, all of which were consumed in the country.

About 60 per cent of cassava in the country is produced in the Western region. Coast produces 30 per cent, while Eastern and Central regions produce 10 per cent 

Cassava leaves are also consumed by certain communities; they are a rich protein source. Taracha said cassava is a staple food in those regions and it can also help relieve pressure on maize consumption for the rest of the country.

“Cassava is a resilient crop that can relieve pressure on maize - the country’s staple food. Maize production has declined due to climate change and emerging pests and diseases,” she said.

Given that the new variety can also be used to blend flours made from wheat and maize flour, Taracha said its demand could go up, which means bigger returns for farmers.

She also pointed out that it can be used in the manufacture of biodegradable bags, starch and animal feeds.

“Cassavas can contribute to wealth and job creation for many people,” Taracha said. Experts also say that the new variety has low cyanogenic levels. Cyanogen is a colourless gas that is harmful to humans.   

Field trials

Following extensive research in laboratories and greenhouses, field trials have already been conducted in three agri-ecological zones - Busia, Kiambu and Mtwapa.

Director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Application (ISAAA) Margaret Karembu has exuded confidence that NBA will make available the superior cassava variety to breeders and farmers.

 “Cassava is an important food and cash crop for small-scale farmers in Kenya, but plant diseases such as CBSD can destroy up to 100 per cent of harvests, threatening livelihoods and family welfare,” Dr Karembu said.

She was speaking during a sensitisation meeting on the new cassava variety organised by ISAA that brought scientists together. NBA Chief Executive Dorington Ogoyi said GMO cassava was likely to have an ‘easier path’ than other GMO crops due to shifting understanding of its breeding.

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