Kenyan Scientists Develop Genetically Modified Cassava Resistant to Devastating Diseases

Nairobi, Kenya (IDN) – Researchers at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) have successfully developed a genetically modified (GM) cassava variety that is resistant to Cassava Brown Streak Disease (CBSD). This breakthrough in modern biotechnology offers hope to farmers battling CBSD, a disease that has a significant impact on food and economic security.

CBSD is considered one of the most dangerous plant diseases worldwide, often leading to a complete loss of cassava yield. To address this challenge, KALRO, in collaboration with Virus Resistant Cassava for Africa (VIRCA), the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) of Uganda, and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Centre (DDPSC) in the United States, initiated the VIRCA project in 2005. The project aimed to develop cassava lines resistant to viral diseases that hindered crop productivity and reduced farmers’ incomes in East Africa.

Through genetic engineering, the VIRCA project successfully developed the CBSD-resistant cassava line 4046. This GM cassava variety has the potential to prevent up to 90 percent of crop damage caused by CBSD, thereby improving cassava root yield and marketability.

Professor Douglas Miano, the lead scientist of the VIRCA project, described the CBSD-resistant cassava as the first GM cassava in the world, with Kenya taking the lead in its production. The scientists showcased the stark contrast between conventional cassava tubers susceptible to CBSD and the GM tubers that appeared healthy and disease-free during a tour of the KALRO grounds in Mtwapa.

CBSD affects cassava roots, while another disease, Cassava Mosaic Disease (CMD), affects the leaves, collectively hampering cassava productivity. The CBSD-resistant cassava variety promises increased productivity and improved root yields compared to conventional varieties. The GM cassava is expected to generate higher demand and greater profits for farmers.

Before the CBSD-resistant cassava can be released commercially, it undergoes confined field trials under regulated conditions. Following approval by Kenya’s National Biosafety Authority, line 4046 will undergo government variety assessment and registration before being made available to farmers.

Scientists assure that the CBSD-resistant cassava varieties are safe for the environment and biodiversity. They emphasize that these GM varieties are similar to conventional cassava in terms of cultivation practices and cost, as there will be no technology fee associated with line 4046. Farmers can replant cuttings from the CBSD-resistant cassava in the same manner as conventional cassava or grow them alongside other crops.

In addition to its nutritional value, cassava is recognized for its potential to contribute to Kenya’s industrial growth. Starch derived from cassava holds promise for industrial applications, but this potential has yet to be fully realized. The development of the CBSD-resistant cassava variety not only protects farmers from devastating losses but also creates opportunities for job creation along the cassava value chain, including its use as animal feed.

The scientists highlight that modern biotechnology provides the best option for incorporating CBSD resistance in cassava cultivars while retaining desired farmer-preferred characteristics. Similar approaches have been successfully employed to confer resistance to plant viruses in crops like pawpaw, squash, and beans, authorized by regulatory bodies worldwide.

The development of the CBSD-resistant cassava variety marks a significant advancement in Kenya’s efforts to enhance cassava production, improve food security, and contribute to the country’s industrial growth.