A genetically modified (GM) cassava plant is one step closer to commercial release in Kenya, where it could help farmers overcome a plant-damaging viral disease.
If approved, the Kenyan scientists who developed it will make the seeds available to smallholders free of charge.
An important plant: Cassava, also called yuca, is an extremely versatile root vegetable – it can be mashed, fried, baked, or even dried and ground into bread flour. It’s not very popular in the US, but it does play an important role in Kenya’s economy and food supply.
“It is a very important crop for food security in Kenya,” said agronomist Simon Gichuki, who helped develop GM cassava, in 2020. “In some of our counties, it is the staple food. And when our corn reserves run out, our farmers turn to cassava to fill this gap. “
The challenge: Cassava Brown Streak Disease (CBSD) is a viral disease that is transmitted through whiteflies or cuttings that are shared between farms. Infections make plants inedible, even for animal consumption, and can wipe out a farmer’s crop 100%.
Although found around the world, CBSD is particularly devastating in East Africa and Kenya, constantly undermining crop yields and threatening food security.
“In recent years, CBD has become an epidemic,” said Gichuki, “and it is very serious right now in our coastal region and western Kenya.”
The GM cassava plant: To remedy this, the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) developed a genetically modified cassava plant that is resistant to the CBSD virus.
“Part of the virus’s DNA is integrated into it [the] Plant genome, ”explained Catherine Taracha, Director of the KALRO Biotechnology Center. “The plant defense is activated to recognize the virus pathogen, attack and break it down.”
The group spent five years growing and refining the plants in the laboratory and in close field trials. Based on these experiments, the Kenyan authorities determined that the genetically modified cassava plant is just as safe for humans, animals and the environment as the non-genetically modified version.
Looking ahead: The authorities have now given KALRO the green light to carry out national performance tests in which the plant will be grown in open fields at locations across the country.
After two years, KALRO will submit a report on the trials to the authorities, who can then decide whether the GM cassava plant should be made available to farmers and ultimately sold to consumers.
If this approval is granted, KALRO plans to provide the seeds to smallholders free of charge.
“I think all cassava farmers and consumers like me are looking forward to the day these CBD-resistant cassava varieties are grown on our farms,” said Gichuki.
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