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May 31, 2010

NYT: Brown Streak Cassava Virus Devastates Africa

Casssava infected with brown streak virus
Photo courtesy - Natural Resource Institute,
Greenwich University
On 31 May 2010 the New York Times reported on the brown streak virus devastating cassava crops across Africa.  The virus is of global importance as cassava is the world’s third-largest source of calories eaten by 800 million people in Africa, South America and Asia.

In the 1920s, a major African famine was caused by the mosaic virus attacking the cassava crop.  The only local Ugandan strain bred to resist the disease was Variant No. 2961.  This variety does not have resistant to the more damaging brown streak virus.

Brown streak virus is currently attacking crops in "a great swath around Lake Victoria, threatening millions of East Africans who grow the tuber as their staple food."

According to Claude M. Fauquet, director of cassava research at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis. the virus is spreading rapidly - “[t]he speed is just unprecedented, and the farmers are really desperate.”

In 2008, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation began funding research into the cassava brown streak virus.  Since, it has given $27 million in grants to aid agencies and plant scientists fighting the disease. This funding underwrites the Great Lakes Cassava Inititative, a six-country consortium based in Kenya.  Team leader Edward Charles notes that cassava is extremely important to subsistence farmers because is is drought-tolerant and leads litt le labor to grow and harvest. 

Currently there is no cassava strain in Africa immune to brown streak.  Researchers are looking for a scientific breakthrough. In the case of bananas, another East African food staple, scientists recently found a solution to banana wilt. 

Working with the Ugandan Cassava Initiative, Dr. Fauquet is conducting experimental tests on splicing genes into different African cassava varieties.  The process is laborious and any breakthrough could take at least five years. 

For more see: McNeil Jr., Donald G.  "Virus Ravages Cassava Plants in Africa," New York Times, 31 May 2010.

About Margaret

CEO and Curator (The Food Museum) | Managing Director and Chief Editor (GR2 Global LLC) | Educator (UCLA PhD) | Researching and writing on global food issues, nutrition and health, sustainability, history (preservation), conservation (natural resources), and design.
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