News / Africa

Scientists Work to Control Cassava Plant Disease in Africa

A farmer digs up cassavas in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast, June 2008 file photo. A farmer digs up cassavas in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast, June 2008 file photo.
x
A farmer digs up cassavas in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast, June 2008 file photo.
A farmer digs up cassavas in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast, June 2008 file photo.
Anne Look
Scientists and agriculture experts are meeting in Bellagio, Italy this week to work out how to fight a deadly plant virus that has been annihilating cassava crops in East Africa for nearly a decade.

Recent outbreaks of this "rapidly proliferating" virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola have sparked fears that the epidemic is pushing into West Africa, and could reach Nigeria, the world's largest producer and consumer of the cassava plant.

Cassava, a tropical root vegetable, could be the miracle crop of Africa. It grows well in poor quality soil and high temperatures, making it resistant to climate change. It requires little labor to grow.

Its roots are rich in carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. It is already a dietary staple throughout the continent, and it could feed more.

Cassava can also be used as an industrial starch to produce plywood, textiles and paper - something that experts say could change African economies and that countries like Nigeria are already beginning to invest in.

Deadly disease

But cassava diseases have been shortchanging farmers in Africa for a century.

One particularly deadly virus, Cassava Brown Streak Disease, began ravaging cassava fields in East Africa 10 years ago and has now moved as far west as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Brown streak disease is spread in two ways: by white flies, of which scientists say there are no shortage in affected countries, and by infected stem cuttings, which farmers use instead of seeds to plant their fields.

"The [brown streak] disease is not very obvious on the plant itself," explained Claude Fauquet, a plant virologist who heads the Global Cassava Partnership for the 21st Century. "The plant is growing fairly well, but the disease is obvious on the roots when they harvest, but when they harvest, it's too late. So in short, there is really nothing that farmers can do and therefore solutions have to come from scientists and different organizations that would be capable of offering farmers virus-free material and to select, to breed material, genotypes of cassava that would be resistant to the disease."

Virus resistant

He said scientists have developed a strain of cassava that is resistant to the virus and are trying it out in Tanzania. They do that by either breeding existing virus-resistant strains together or genetically engineering new ones in the laboratory. They then must go village-by-village, getting farmers to plant that new super strain.

Fauquet said this approach has been successful against Cassava Mosaic Disease, also known as CMD. It is the most common cassava disease in Africa and it is all over the continent. But CMD primarily damages the cassava plant, not the root. A farmer can usually salvage some of his harvest.

Fauquet said that is not the case with brown streak disease.

"The roots are completely necrotic. Therefore farmers, they lose absolutely everything. So, the plant is growing," he said. "They work in the field, they weed. They spend a lot of energy and a year or 18 months later when they harvest, all the roots are present but they are necrotic, and therefore they cannot eat them, they cannot process them. They cannot even feed animals. Animals will refuse to eat them as well… You go from having a harvest to having no harvest in one cycle."

Experts say brown streak disease could cut cassava production in half on the continent. As many as 300 million Africans could be affected.

Fauquet said they must act fast to keep it from reaching West Africa where nearly every country, and in particular Nigeria, counts on the crop.

"You would have an explosion of the disease and maybe we would need a decade before we could respond and offer farmers solutions. So the magnitude of the problem would be gigantic, and therefore the idea is can we prevent this? Can we put in place a system to prevent and to monitor if there was an importation or a spread?" he said.

Fauquet said all it takes is one farmer sharing infected stem cuttings with another across the border or across the continent to accelerate the spread of the disease.

You May Like

Anti-Terror Drills Highlight China’s Push Into Central Asia

China, Russia, several central Asian countries wrap up massive anti terrorism military drills in Inner Mongolia More

Erdogan’s First Step: Secure More Power in New Role in Turkey

Erdogan was sworn in as Turkey's first popularly elected president on Thursday; he picked former foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu as PM More

Pakistan Army Fails to Break Political Deadlock

PM Sharif claims he didn't ask army to defuse crisis; military rejects claim More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Ukraine Battles Pro-Russia Rebel Assaulti
X
Daniel Schearf
August 29, 2014 9:30 PM
After NATO concluded an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis in eastern Ukraine, the country is struggling to contain heavy fighting near the strategic port of Mariupol, on the Azov Sea. Separatist rebels are trying to capture the city, allegedly with Russian military help, and Ukraine's defense forces are digging in. VOA's Daniel Schearf spoke with analysts about what lies ahead for Ukraine.
Video

Video Ukraine Battles Pro-Russia Rebel Assault

After NATO concluded an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis in eastern Ukraine, the country is struggling to contain heavy fighting near the strategic port of Mariupol, on the Azov Sea. Separatist rebels are trying to capture the city, allegedly with Russian military help, and Ukraine's defense forces are digging in. VOA's Daniel Schearf spoke with analysts about what lies ahead for Ukraine.
Video

Video Growing Business Offers Paint with a Twist of Wine

Two New Orleans area women started a small business seven years ago with one thing in mind: to help their neighbors relieve the stress of coping with a hurricane's aftermath. Today their business, which pairs painting and a little bit of wine, has become one of the fastest growing franchises across the U.S. VOA’s June Soh met the entrepreneurs at their newest franchise location in the Washington suburbs.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials To Begin Next Week

The National Institutes of Health says it is launching early stage trials of a vaccine to prevent the Ebola virus, which has infected or killed thousands of people across West Africa. The World Health Organization says Ebola could infect more than 20,000 people across the region by the time the outbreak is over. The epidemic has health experts and governments scrambling to prevent more people from becoming infected. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Asian Bacteria Threatens Florida Orange Trees

Florida's citrus fruit industry is facing a serious threat from a bacteria carried by the Asian insect called psyllid. The widespread infestation again highlights the danger of transferring non-native species to American soil. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Aging Will Reduce Economic Growth Worldwide in Coming Decades

The world is getting older, fast. And as more people retire each year, fewer working-age people will be there to replace them. Bond rating agency Moody’s says that will lead to a decline in household savings; reducing global investments - which in turn, will lead to slower economic growth around the world. But experts say it’s not too late to mitigate the economic impact of the world’s aging populations. Mil Arcega has more.
Video

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

The United States along with European and Mideast allies are considering a broader assault against Islamic State fighters who have spread from Syria into Iraq and risk further destabilizing an already troubled region. But as VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, confronting those militants could end up helping the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Video

Video Made in America Socks Get Toehold in Online Fashion Market

Three young entrepreneurs are hoping to revolutionize the high-end sock industry by introducing all-American creations of their own. And they’re doing most of it the old-fashioned way. VOA’s Julie Taboh recently caught up with them to learn what goes into making their one-of-a-kind socks.
Video

Video Americans, Ex-Pats Send Relief Supplies to West Africa

Health organizations from around the world are sending supplies and specialists to the West African countries that are dealing with the worst Ebola outbreak in history. On a smaller scale, ordinary Americans and African expatriates living in the United States are doing the same. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video America's Most Popular Artworks Displayed in Public Places

Public places in cities across America were turned into open-air art galleries in August. Pictures of the nation’s most popular artworks were displayed on billboards, bus shelters, subway platforms and more. The idea behind “Art Everywhere,” a collaborative campaign by five major museums is to allow more people to enjoy art and learn about the country’s culture and history. Faiza Elmasry has more.
Video

Video Chinese Doctors Use 3-D Spinal Implant

A Chinese boy suffering from a debilitating bone disease has become the first patient with a part of his spine created in a three-dimensional printer. Doctors say he will soon regain normal mobility. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video India’s Leprosy Battle Stymied by Continuing Stigma

Medical advancements in the treatment of leprosy have greatly diminished its impact around the world, largely eliminating the disease from most countries. India made great strides in combating leprosy, but still accounts for a majority of the world’s new cases each year, and the number of newly infected Indians is rising - more than 130,000 recorded last year. Doctors there say the problem has more to do with society than science. Shaikh Azizur Rahman reports from Kolkata.

AppleAndroid