Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Battling Crop Diseases to Help Small Farmers

Millions of farm families across East Africa, including Uganda and Kenya, eat cassava every day, and sometimes it’s the only thing they eat. This root crop is tough and survives drought and poor soils. As durable as it is, it’s also vulnerable to viral diseases. Two of these—Cassava Brown Streak and Cassava Mosaic—can destroy a third of the crop in Africa every year.
I saw firsthand how devastating such diseases can be when I visited a farmer’s organization in Uganda a couple of years ago. Their fields had been infected by Cassava Brown Streak Disease. Through one of our grantees, these farmers received some new varieties of cassava that were supposed to be disease-tolerant, and they were multiplying them to share with the group. This was an exciting project for the community, and was providing some hope for the farm families that live there.

To learn more about VIRCA and the Cassava plant, and take advantage of the above infographic's interactivity, click here.
We spoke with members of the farmer’s organization, and then they took us (me and a researcher from the grantee) on a tour to look at the cassava in the field. That’s when the bad news came. The researcher noticed something: small, but visible signs of the disease on the leaves of the plants.
I will never forget the looks on the farmers’ faces when we pulled the plants up and saw the rotten cassava roots. They were crushed. This meant the cassava was most likely all infected, and they weren’t going to have viable plants for the next season.
We are working with partners to find solutions to these kinds of destructive diseases—diseases that bring hunger and malnutrition, and perpetuate poverty. Most recently, we gave a grant to the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center who will work with researchers in Uganda and Kenya to develop new varieties of cassava that are resistant to these two diseases.
There are several ways to create crops that are disease resistant. One uses what’s called conventional approaches to plant breeding. This approach has helped create some varieties of cassava that are tolerant to these diseases, but we know that conventional approaches sometimes aren’t enough to create truly resistant plants. As we have seen with these two viral diseases, conventional breeding hasn’t solved the problem. Another approach to crop breeding uses transgenic plant breeding approaches, sometimes referred to as genetic modification. Sometimes genetic modification can address the challenges facing small farmers more efficiently and completely than conventional breeding alone. While this approach is a small part of our work in agriculture, it is one that we believe has promise, particularly when it comes to addressing certain kinds of plant diseases.
Read more about why we fund research in crop biotechnology, and how environmental and health safety, and farmer choice are cornerstones of this work.


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