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Kenya on the path to growing GM cassava

Raphael Owaka, a cassava farmer at his farm in Nyakach, Kisumu county.  [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

Kenya will soon start planting Genetically Modified (GM) and disease-resistant cassava after the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) approved the release of the variety. The variety, Event 4046, is resistant to cassava brown streak disease (CBSD) and will help boost production and improve the livelihood of smallholder farmers through increased income.

The disease-resistant variety cassava was developed by the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro). The NBA Board approved the application following necessary review, in accordance with the Biosafety Act. The approval is valid for five years.

Pilot trials

The approval paves the way for conducting National Performance Trials of these varieties before registration and release to farmers. The decision was arrived at following a rigorous and thorough review.

“The improved cassava variety was developed through the VIRCA Plus Project, which was started to develop cassava that is resistant to cassava mosaic disease (CMD) and cassava brown streak disease (CBSD), with an aim of enhancing the livelihoods of smallholder farmers,” said Dr Catherine Taracha, the director of Kalro Biotechnology Centre.

The Virus Resistant Cassava for Africa Plus (VIRCA Plus) project, is a collaborative programme consisting of virologists, plant physiologists, breeders, biotechnologists, molecular biologists, agronomists, regulatory scientists, communication and management.

Dr Taracha explains that there are two major diseases that are a challenge to cassava production. They are Cassava Mosaic Disease (CMD), where you get crinkling of the leaves and Cassava Brown Streak Disease (CBSD), where you get streaks of brown on the cassava and malformation of the roots.

The CBSD can result in 98 to 100 per cent loss of usable storage roots in a severe attack. These diseases are transmitted by whiteflies and by farmers sharing diseased cuttings. For CMD, this disease has been managed through conventional breeding. 

Dr Taracha says evidence from planting Event 4046 in Uganda and Kenya demonstrated that there was sustained resistance across multiple generations and different locations.

She explains: “We took our improved cassava with resistant cassava brown streak disease and crossed it with farmer-preferred variety that had latent cassava mosaic disease resistance. This was done several times and the seed germinated into seedlings which were taken through various evaluation to ensure disease resistance.”

Areas mapped for the NPTs include Alupe, Kakamega, Kibos, Homa Bay and Oyani in western Kenya, while in the coastal region which also grows a significant amount of cassava, Mpeketoni, Mtwapa, Matuga, Kikoneni and Msabaha have also been listed.

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