GM cassava promises higher yields and profits for Kenyan farmers

Cassava farmers in Kenya are set to reap more yields and earn higher profits from their crops as the East African country prepares for the rollout of a genetically modified (GM) cassava variety that can fight off two of the most devastating diseases affecting the crop in the region.

The government’s approval in June for environmental release to conduct National Performance Trials (NPT) for cassava varieties offering disease-resistant traits marks the penultimate stage before the superior variety is finally released to farmers.

Free seed material is just one of the many benefits that lie ahead for cassava farmers in the country once the improved crop is approved for release to farmers.

“This cassava will be free to the small-scale farmers,” said Dr Catherine Taracha, Director of Biotechnology at the Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organization (KALRO). “We don’t have any intellectual property issues. This cassava will follow the usual cassava distribution seed systems that we already have in Kenya.”

Cassava is the second most important food crop in some parts of Kenya and forms an integral component in the economic and food security needs of a vast population, particularly in marginalized regions of the country that account for 75% of the land mass.

But over the years, diseases and insect pests have posed a looming threat to the crop, threatening to wipe out entire harvests and putting livelihoods on the brink. The Cassava Brown Streak disease (CBSD) can be particularly vicious, and can cause losses to the tune of up to 98% for cassava farmers.

The Cassava Mosaic Disease (CMD) is another disease that leads to similarly horrific devastation, with yield losses amounting to 68%.

CBSD is characterized by brown streaks or rot and malformed roots, while CMD is characterized by yellow mosaic on affected areas coupled with distortion of leaves and stunting.

“The VIRCA Plus Project has been carrying out the work to develop cassava that is resistant to CBSD and CMD,” Dr Taracha told a webinar convened in July by the AfriSMC. “The goal has been to enhance livelihoods of smallholder farmers by delivering cassava varieties that are enhanced for resistance to virus diseases”.

The new variety will have farmer-preferred qualities, in addition to its resistance to CBSD and CMD, and will not require extraneous farming practices over conventional varieties.

“There will be no special farming practices needed,” said Dr Taracha. “The farmer will just continue planting his cassava using the usual agronomic practices”.

She added that breeders could be able to further develop the new variety. The CBSD-resistant cassava has shown sustained resistance across multiple generations and different locations, following evaluations that were carried out on the progenies in Kenya and Uganda. Analysis has shown that the CBSD-resistant cassava is safe and has no negative effects on the environment.

“From our research we found out that this CBSD-resistant cassava is safe, and this was based on international food, feed and environmental safety guidelines”, Dr Taracha said. “We were able to take the leaves and the roots of our improved cassava to a laboratory in the US for safety evaluation, and we found that the cassava remains the same as the conventional cassava that has not been improved”.

The plant characteristics remained the same as that of conventional cassava, Dr Taracha added. The nutritional composition also remained the same.

Cassava has the potential to spur manufacturing, create employment and contribute to Kenya’s economy, in line with the country’s ambitious “Big 4 Agenda” that seeks to accelerate development through manufacturing. The crop also provides a viable and nutritious alternative to maize, the country’s principal staple.

Biotechnology, which was what the scientists used to develop the CBSD-resistant variety, is the same technology that has been used to produce Hawaii’s virus-resistant papaya and insect-resistant cowpea, maize and cotton, which have been approved for commercialization in other parts of Africa, as well as elsewhere in the world.

The Kenya National Biosafety Authority approved the CBSD-resistant cassava variety for environmental release. This means it will now be put under the national performance trials (NPTs) that will involve testing the Distinctness, Uniformity and Stability (DUS) of the new cassava variety. The trials will be done for a period of two seasons, with each season taking between 9-12 months. If the NPT results are favorable, the Kenyan government will consider an application to release the new cassava varieties to farmers.