Protect Vital Cassava Farming in Africa

Cassava is a starchy root crop whose tubers are a primary food source for about 800 million people worldwide, including about 250 million people who live in Africa. A relative to the rubber plant, cassava grows well in marginal conditions: its leaves remain green during Africa’s seasonal droughts. The fallen leaves give enough nutrients back to the soil that the subsistence farmers can grow it without fertilizer. Also, the cassava tolerates poor farming, making it a crop that can be grown, for example, by a farmer who is weak from malaria.

For having such a central role in the diets of so many, though, the cassava tuber is a relatively poor source of some important nutrients. Dr. Richard Sayre, head of the BioCassava Plus Project, envisioned a "super" cassava with more protein, zinc, iron, vitamin A, and vitamin E. Additional goals for the Project included increasing the size of its tubers, reducing its toxin levels (tubers contain varying levels of a form of poisonous cyanide), and boosting the plant’s resistance to diseases.

Five years ago, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave Dr. Sayre and the BioCassava Plus Project a $12 million grant to use genetic engineering to significantly improve the cassava. Because cassava is propagated by cuttings, genetic engineering methods represent a time-saving shortcut over conventional selective breeding. Before too long, however, cassava "improvement" was forced to encompass the challenge of a terrible new viral disease that still threatens Africa’s food supply. It injected a new urgency to the scientists’ work.

A virus mutation in 2004 spurred an "explosive" spread of the Brown Streak Disease from the East Africa coastal lowlands to the higher inland areas, including Uganda. These viruses are spread by tiny whiteflies. Unlike the tamer coastal version, the newer Uganda strain kills cassava plants and riddles the tubers with brown discoloration, rendering them inedible, as shown in the photo. Brown Streak Disease (for its markings on stems) has created an emergency for many farmers who are left without enough plants to produce cuttings for the upcoming season.

In the face of this cassava crisis, plant scientists have met or exceeded the goals of their research proposals, including resistance to the devastating new virus. In mid-2009, Dr.Claude Fauquet, an expert in the single-strand DNA geminiviruses that infect cassava, announced that he and his team had succeeded in creating a strain of cassava that is resistant to both versions of Cassava Brown Streak Disease. They used the same technique – called RNA interference – that had been used to create disease-specific resistance in new papaya and plum tree varieties. Dr. Fauquet’s achievement with cassava that is resistant to the Brown Streak Diseases builds on the success in increasing protein by a factor of 4, iron by a factor of 4, and vitamin A by a factor of 30, not to mention the other goals reached or exceeded.

The hope is that the new cassava will succeed during field trials in East Africa and be available to the farmers there by 2015, if not sooner. (Genetically modified crops are always carefully field-tested.)

The epicenter for U.S.-based cassava research is in St. Louis, Missouri, at the Donald Danforth Plant Sciences Center. It is home to Dr. Fauquet as well as the BioCassava Plus Project and Dr. Sayre, the grant awardee, who joined the staff in 2008. Indeed, the DanforthCenter has been a powerhouse for cassava research for a long time. Although the Center was founded in 1998, two of its most esteemed plant virologists, Dr. Fauquet and Dr. Roger Beachy, were pioneers in this area of study: in 1991, while at the Scripps Research Institute, they co-founded the International Laboratory for Tropical Agriculture Biotechnology (ILTAB).

Dr. Fauquet also founded (and still co-chairs) the Global Cassava Project. He pushed for the sequencing of the cassava genome, an initiative also funded by the Gates Foundation. The genome sequence was completed in 2009 by a team led by University of Arizona scientists and a subsidiary of Roche called 454 Life Sciences, the world leader in genome-related technology. Free access to the genome data is expected to be an invaluable resource to future endeavors.

Interest in cassava extends beyond food: China now grows it for ethanol, and a recent study of it grown in Alabama for ethanol was promising.

Indications are that experienced plant scientists in Africa who were, in large part, trained in the United States, are recognizing the need for more agriculture doctoral programs in their universities. They have been inspired by the many scientists who are responding to Africa’s cassava crisis. They liken current efforts to help Africa’s farmers to those of agriculture professors of the U.S. land grant universities during India’s Green Revolution. They helped India learn to "feed itself" during the 1950s to 1960s; by the late 1980s, India had become a net exporter of food.

Today, genetic engineering is not without its critics. However, according to a 2009 report in the Chronicle of Higher Education, most students studying agriculture in Africa’s universities argue in favor of genetic engineering. One of the new doctoral students interviewed for that article noted that GE technology could halve the time required to develop better crops for the hungry continent. "Africa missed out on the Green Revolution," he said, "so we shouldn’t miss out on the Genetic Revolution too."

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Cassava farming seminar slated

Representatives of Ginebra San Miguel Inc. will be in Silay City, Negros Occidental, Thursday for an Orientation Seminar on Cassava Farming Technology though the Agricultural and Fishery Council of Silay, AFC chairperson Reynaldo Sazon said yesterday.

Sazon said they plan to go into cassava farming once they are sure of the market, with the help of the GSMI. He said they were able to see the high potentials of the crop when GMSI presented its possible uses in beer production last December.

Sazon said high yield varieties of cassava can produce 30 to 50 tons per hectare. The tonnage can be translated into high income if the production is this much, he added.

Silay City has more than 30 hectares of unused land that can be used for cassava farming, Sazon said.

The land conversion is possible through the approval of the Silay City government and other stakeholders like the Office of the Provincial Agriculturist, and the 25 cooperative and associate members of AFC, he also said.

He admitted that they do not have the post harvest facilities for cassava, they have issues with its flexible price, and they do not have the appropriate technology for its full operation.

However, the seminar that will be provided by GSMI will give them an idea how far they can invest when it comes to cassava farming, Sazon said.

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China plans to import cassava

The project – which is also set to include a processing factory – aims to produce 150,000 tonnes of cassava per year, largely for export to the People’s Republic of China.

“We hope the project will be successful, which can create a new market for farmers to sell their products and to earn more income for the national economy,” he said.

Cassava is often used in ethanol production. Yields on Khaou Chuly Development Company were targeted at 30 tonnes of cassava per hectare per year.

Construction of the production facility was slated to begin near to the end of this year.

While production of the crop now generally occurs in the Kingdom’s western provinces, Khaou Phallaboth also said there was plenty of land available in the northern reaches of Cambodia.

The land, he said, had strong potential for high yields.

Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishery undersecretary of state Kit Seng said that cassava production often produced high yields, but added planting for the long term could damage the quality of the soil.

Still, he said the Agriculture Ministry supported cassava production – especially as it was a priority crop, with companies receiving encouragement from the government to grow.

In December, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced an agreement with China aimed at increasing cassava exports to Asia’s largest economy.

Ministry of Agriculture figures show that cassava was grown on 200,821 hectares of land for the 2010 to 2011 harvest season, an increase of 40,495 hectares from the previous season.

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Biotechnology to help speed up cassava breed

Breeding new plant varieties via conventional methods usually takes more than a decade, but with the assistance of biotechnology, the Thai Tapioca Development Institute (TTDI) hopes using a DNA fingerprint will shorten the time for cassava strain development and result in new varieties for specific uses.

A DNA fingerprint will be applied to match different cassava varieties with desired characteristics before selected varieties are crossbred in the field to see the actual result of the new variety.

Conventional methods entail repetitive crossbreeding of one variety with many others until a satisfactory trait results. The new process can be tested on a computer first to rule out crossbreeds that will bring about unsatisfactory outcomes, leaving only the breeding of carefully selected varieties.

The TTDI is now developing a waxy starch in cooperation with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, whose scientists have succeeded in deriving a mutant strain with the waxy or amylose-free trait.

This waxy mutant will be crossbred with commercial local varieties to develop waxy tapioca.

Adul Vinaiphat, the institute's vice-president, said waxy tapioca will have much higher value than the regular kind, as waxy starch is in demand by several industries and cannot be substituted by modified starch derived from normal tapioca.

The TTDI expects waxy tapioca to be ready for commercial planting within the next three years. Meanwhile, it must figure out how to protect the expected new plant variety through patent registration to ensure maximum benefit for cassava planters.

"If planters have to pay a high price for their cassava trunks, they'll be in trouble, so we must figure out how to handle this without causing them problems. At the same time, we'll have to find ways to control the smuggling of new varieties to neighbouring countries," said Suthiporn Chirapanda, an adviser to the TTDI.

Searching for high-value varieties is a sustainable solution for the development of the local tapioca industry, which involves some 400,000 households, he said.

Due to an infestation of pink cassava mealybugs for almost two years now, production of fresh cassava roots is estimated at only 21 million tonnes, while demand stands at 30 million tonnes. That means cassava will most likely stay above three baht a kilogramme this year.

Mr Adul said price problems will not plague planters this year, but industry may be worried about quality, as some planters may dig up their cassava roots too early - at about six months instead of the usual nine months.

Roots that are too young contain a low percentage of starch.

This practice may also cause quality issues for the next crop, as planters may not have strong cassava trunks for crop expansion.

Therefore, the institute recommends that planters keep some of their roots in the ground until measurement for use in breeding the next crop.

Yet another potential problem is adulterated tapioca chips from small factories popping up to compete in buying cassava roots from planters, said Mr Adul.

The substandard chips will result in low-quality starch and higher costs for flour factories.

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Giant sweet cassava

Jamaica, Valerie Martin, vice principal and 4H co-ordinator at Port Antonio Primary School, shows of this giant sweet cassava reaped from the 4H garden at the back of the school last Friday morning.

Martin said this was the first time they had reaped a sweet cassava this size and that it was only a portion of the plant that was dug up over the Christmas holidays.

She said they will use the cassava to make bammies, starch and dumplings as they demonstrate its various uses to the 4H students.

The cassava is three feet, eight inches tall and weighs about 30 pounds.

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Cassava and the Future of Thailand

Companies from the US, Europe and elsewhere are racing toward commercial-scale production of biofuels that utilize a variety of new technologies and processes. This is excellent news for those interested in the growth of clean, renewable fuels. However, as companies scale up, they face the challenge of securing long-term supplies of affordable feedstock in quantities that are beyond what many regions can guarantee. The country of Thailand, already one of the world’s leading agri-food exporters, believes it can attract investment in the advanced biofuel sector by providing a solution to this problem. And for Thailand, a major part of the solution is cassava.

Efficiency of cassava as a feedstock

Cassava, a tuber cultivated widely in tropical and sub-tropical regions, is currently one of the world’s most cost-efficient biofuel feedstocks. A recently published article in the African Journal of Biotechnology found that cassava is more efficient compared to other energy crops, such as sugar cane, sweet sorghum, corn and wheat. One hectare of farm land cultivated with cassava is able to produce on average 6,000 kg of ethanol. The closest competitor in terms of efficiency is sugar cane, which can produce 4,900 kg of ethanol annually per hectare (sugarcane is Thailand’s second major feedstock). Ethanol made from cassava costs $0.68/L while molasses-based varieties were $0.87/L. Of course, both feedstocks beat out corn in terms of efficiency: one hectare of corn only produces 2,050 kg of ethanol per year, a little over a third of the same area as cassava.

Production and export potential in Thailand

Thailand is the world’s largest exporter of raw cassava. Due to Thailand’s strength in the cultivation of this crop, twenty-five of Thailand’s thirty-six ethanol facilities utilize cassava as a feed stock. The potential for ramping up production is enormous. Production in Thailand only reached 1.72 million liters per day in 2009, but the Thai Board of Investment estimates that Thailand has the capacity to produce 7.3 million liters of cassava-derived ethanol per day.

One of the primary challengers to Thailand in the East Asian biofuels market is Brazil, the world’s largest ethanol producer. Thailand commands lower transportation costs, giving it a $0.03/L advantage in Asia over Brazil. In terms of production costs, ethanol produced from Thai cassava ($0.26/L) is cheaper than ethanol produced from US corn ($0.27/L), Australian sugar cane ($0.33/L) or EU sweet sorghum ($0.51/L).

Challenges to cassava cultivation

Cassava cultivation in Thailand was threatened this year after an infestation of aphids, a destructive species of small sap-sucking insects. From 2009 to 2010, ethanol produced from cassava fell from 1.72 million liters a day to just 0.75 million liters a day. However, the Thai government has taken steps to combat the infestation which caused the production drop. A group of Thai scientists and their commercial partners have introduced wasps, which are natural predators of aphids, to help quell the infestation without the use of harsh pesticides. So far the wasps have proved effective and the Thai government predicts that ethanol production from cassava will recover within the next two to three years.

Cassava and other bio-based industries

The recovery of cassava cultivation will prove to be important over the next several years as Thailand is also seeking to increase the production of value-added bio-based products. For example, PPT Aromatics, a large Thai petroleum refining company, has announced that it will invest over $150 million dollars into the construction of a new jet biofuels facility. The new facility will be unique in that it will be the first to produce bio-based aviation fuel that will meet new European regulations set to come into force in 2012. Furthermore, two bioplastics firms, the Italian Novamont SpA and US-based NatureWorks LLC, are both eyeing Thailand as the site for future manufacturing facilities.

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