KENYA – Cassava farmers are about five years away from accessing disease-resistant genetically modified varieties, currently being tested in specific locations around the country.

Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) scientists are developing a transgenic variety that is resistant to the Cassava Mosaic Virus and the Cassava Brown Streak Disease the two diseases that have in recent years destroyed the crop causing farmers massive losses and threatening food security in rural Kenya.

“Currently, we have close to 200,000 hectares under cassava in Kenya, most of which (60%) is in western Kenya.

Close to 30% of the crop is at the coast and the rest in the central region,” said Simon Gichuki, a senior principal research officer at KALRO who is also the coordinator of the crop biotechnology programme that is conducting the GMO cassava research.

Dr Gichuki said both diseases, especially the cassava mosaic, have been destroying the crop for a very long time, making the intervention critical.

“We have never been able to control it. The brown streak has also been there but not as big a problem.

But in recent years, the two have become an epidemic, posing a big threat to cassava farming,” he added.

The Cassava Mosaic disease attacks the leaves of the plant, causing them to wither, bend and discolour, while also making the cassava root bumpy, leaving only a small percentage edible.

Since 2009, the Kalro team has conducted numerous tests, under the Virus Resistant and Nutritionally Enhanced Cassava for Africa (VIRCA PLUS) Project.

In the second phase, the scientists focused on taking disease resistant genes and inserting them in cassava varieties of farmers’ preference, without necessarily having to create a whole new variety.

The project is now in the third and final phase of seeking regulatory approval.

“In this phase, we are now just trying to make sure that the plants we have developed are safe for humans, safe for the environment and animal feeds.

“So here we will be testing the composition, taste and all kinds of tests to make sure that it is safe,” Dr Gichuki said.

Last year, the team got approval from the National Biosafety Authority to carry out confined field trials and the three test sites were chosen to represent each cassava growing region.

The scientists say it was important that a test site is located at the Coast, because not only is the prevalence of the disease much higher, but also there are more strains of the brown streak disease along the Kenyan coast than there are anywhere else.

“This research is important to us because, for the first time in the world, biotechnology is being used to improve cassava varieties,” said Dr Theresia Munga, a cassava breeder based at the Kalro, Mtwapa Centre.

Breeding for resistance to Cassava Mosaic Disease and Cassava Brown Streak Disease was initiated in 1937 in Amani, Tanzania and due to insufficient levels of resistance in cultivated cassava; a strategy to incorporate resistance from wild species was adopted.

Business Daily