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Cassava Saving Millions Starving Africans

“We must sing for you, great cassava, we must sing,” wrote Flora Nwapa, a Nigerian novelist and poet, in praise of cassava during the 1967 Nigerian civil war.

Many would not have deciphered the important message contained in this phrase but it has come in handy since cassava has been touted as the only staple food that could get Africa out of hunger bondage.

Ukambani is a place where the great cassava is getting such praises, the hardy tuber will save millions of residents who have survived through perennial droughts.

It is not only Ukambani where the crop has found its way back to the farms, other regions in the country prone to hunger and famine are giving it a shot.

Field trials have begun in a bold effort to make cassava, the primary source of calories for 800 million people worldwide, a better provider of nutrition and increase its revenue-producing potential, especially for farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

The three-year-old BioCassava Plus project, funded since 2005 by more than 12.1 million U.S. dollars in grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has attracted a team of international scientists that is genetically engineering a range of valuable traits into the low-protein, virus-prone root crop that has a short shelf life and long processing time.

According to Richard Sayre one of the scientists who spoke to Xinhua, the project has eight objectives five of which are nutritional. The scientists sought to put the minimum daily allowances of protein, vitamins A and E, iron and zinc into a single 500-gram adult meal of cassava.

They also plan to make the crop more resistant to viral diseases, which reduce yields by 30 percent to 50 percent in many areas of sub-Saharan Africa; extend the plant’s shelf life from one day to two weeks; and reduce cyanide toxicity.

The cassava plant requires a three- to six-day processing regimen that must begin immediately after harvest to remove compounds that generate cyanide.

“Where we stand now,” says Sayre, “We’ve demonstrated proof of practice for all the target objectives in three years.”

The scientists have created individual plants with each trait, and ultimately they will combine most or all of the traits into a single plant.

Cassava is grown widely in tropical Africa, Asia and Latin America. It is the developing world’s fourth most important crop, with production in 2006 estimated at 226 million metric tons, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Cassava is the staple food of nearly one billion people in 105 countries where the root provides as much as a third of daily calories. However, average cassava yields are barely 20 percent of those obtained under optimum conditions. To engineer a better cassava plant, the scientists began with a model cultivar from Africa, a variety of a plant that is created or chosen and maintained through cultivation.

For each targeted trait, the team transferred into the cassava plant genes from other plants, including cassava, and sometimes bacteria, that could confer the desired traits. The transgenic plants then went through a rigorous biosafety approval process in the United States and were tested in model systems, like human cell lines and sometimes animals, before they were allowed to be grown outside in field trials.

BioCassava Plus now has field trials in progress at a US Department of Agriculture site in Puerto Rico and is working with partners from the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez.

“We have at least three traits in the field and we anticipate having two and maybe more coming by the end of the year,” Sayre said.

The next step is to hold field trials in Africa with partners in Kenya and Nigeria in 2009. After these trials, the scientists can begin the process of combining traits into a single plant.

“Africa is in the process of establishing biosafety regulations for transgenics in most of the countries,” Sayre said. However Kenya and Nigeria, have rules in place.

A preliminary cassava product release, potentially within five years, will have four or five traits, including virus resistance, higher protein, iron and vitamin A.

In Kenya, cassava is grown on more than 90,000 hectares with an annual production of about 540,000 tonnes. Cultivation is mainly in Western (60 percent), Eastern (10) and Coast provinces (30). The crop has been grown by peasant farmers for subsistence.

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