Kenya set to launch genetically modified cassava

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A farmer inspects his cassava plants in Nambale, Kenya. (Creative Commons / Mwangi Kirubi)
A farmer inspects his cassava plants in Nambale, Kenya. (Creative Commons / Mwangi Kirubi)

Kenya and several African countries are coming together to launch a genetically modified (GM) cassava variety that is resistant to brown streak disease.

Eliud Kireger, Director General, Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) said research on improved cassava variety, which took more than 10 years, has recorded breakthroughs as the crop is now one step closer to commercialization.

Kireger said the VIRCA Plus project has already successfully developed cassava with robust and durable resistance to the brown streak disease.

“This cassava has been validated over multiple cropping cycles in several locations in the agro-ecological zones in Kenya,” Kireger told journalists during a field visit in the coastal city of Mombasa.

He said that the project recorded a milestone when the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) in June granted approval for environmental release of the disease-resistant cassava, signalling that the developed cassava can now transition to National Performance Trials (NPTs).

Kireger noted that local and international biosafety standards were strictly observed during the development of the improved biotech cassava.

“In arriving at the decision to approve the cassava for environmental release, NBA conducted a rigorous and thorough review, taking into account food, feed, and environmental safety assessment as well as consideration of socio-economic issues,” said Kireger.

Douglas Miano, lead project scientist for VIRCA Plus in Kenya said the GM cassava that is set for release globally has performed better over the period that trials have been undertaken.

He said that the project that has been conducted with Uganda scientists, and lately Rwanda and Mozambique is a public investment project and will be available to farmers without conditions.

Miano said that cassava brown streak disease (CBSD) causes yield loss of up to 70 percent, amounting to 7.5 billion shillings (about 67 million U.S. dollars) annually in eastern and southern African regions.

He revealed that the project that is aimed at enhancing the livelihood of smallholder farmers will contribute to the economy of the countries.

Miano revealed that they have presented 8 lines of cassava varieties for approval by Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS).

Paul Kuria, a senior scientist at KALRO said that in 2008-2014, they did product concept, gene discovery, transformation, greenhouse evolution and proof of concept.

He added that in 2013-2015 they did field evaluation, event selection, variety development, biosafety assessment, dossier review and appeal for general release.

Kuria said that more than 95 percent of roots of conventional cassava are lost to CBSD while in improved variety loss is less than 2 percent.

“Extensive studies in greenhouse and field trials have conclusively proved protection of cassava against CBSD,” said Kuria.

He revealed that from stakeholder engagement farmers seem to prefer the variety since it resists Cassava Mosaic Disease (CMD), has no special farming practices needed and can be further developed by breeders.

According to Kuria, KALRO in collaboration with Menonite Economic Development Association (MEDA), a private partner, are currently engaged in making arrangements for large scale seed multiplication and distribution to farmers.

Marstella Bahati, chairlady of Pwani Ufanisi Farmers Cooperative hailed scientists for coming up with the solution to diseases affecting cassava.

“At long last farmers from cassava growing regions can start thinking of having an income generating activity,” Bahati said.

Margaret Karembu, director, International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA AfriCenter) said the research results will ensure timely and efficient access to clean planting materials by smallholder farmers.

Karembu urged scientists to educate populations on the importance of innovations that they conduct in laboratories to avoid suspicions.

Juma Mohamed, head of root and tuber crops in the Ministry of Agriculture said that as a climate smart crop, cassava can survive better during drought periods.

Mohamed said that with the new cassava variety many farmers from 13 counties where it is a valued crop may drop growing maize and other crops in its favour.

He noted that besides using cassava as human food and animal feed, it can also be used in making paper bags, sanitizers and flour.

Mohamed said that once it is finally available for commercial cultivation, all other players in the cassava value chain will benefit from disease-resistant varieties through improved farm productivity.

Cassava is rich in carbohydrates, calcium, vitamins B and C, and essential minerals and is cultivated in around 40 African countries.

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