Championing an ‘orphan crop’: Cassava experts convene in Uganda

NextGen Cassava is unlocking the full potential of cassava and delivering improved varieties to smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa

KAMPALA, UGANDA, Feb. 25, 2019 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Cassava is a dietary staple for millions of Africans, but has received little attention from scientists and plant breeders in comparison to cash crops such as wheat and maize. Until the Next Generation Cassava Breeding project, or NextGen Cassava, the hearty root vegetable was something of an “orphan crop” -- even in Africa.

“For the first time, we have developed and identified elite cassava varieties to be grown in the West Nile region of Uganda,” said Robert Kawuki, cassava breeder at the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) and Uganda country lead for NextGen Cassava. “We have integrated gender considerations into our variety development, testing and selection process. By improving the organization and focus of our cassava breeding program and learning to use new tools, we have been able to establish a variety replacement strategy more responsive to society’s needs.” Participating in NextGen Cassava has significantly benefitted Uganda and the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI), he said.

The Ugandan plant breeder joined about 100 cassava breeders, gender experts, food and plant scientists from around the world in Kampala, Uganda, to attend NextGen Cassava’s 7th annual meeting, Feb. 18-22. They shared updates on modernizing cassava breeding programs and bringing better cassava varieties to consumers. 

Led by International Programs at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (IP-CALS), NextGen Cassava is unlocking the full potential of cassava and delivering improved varieties to smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

“We have spent the past year piloting new methods to capture preferences of smallholder cassava farmers that can be translated into actionable breeding targets,” said Hale Ann Tufan, a gender expert in plant breeding and genetics who is the survey science lead on NextGen Cassava. “In the coming year we will scale these out to generate data useful for breeders and build feedback loops that bring the voices of men and women back to breeding programs,” she said.

“One major feature in this year’s meeting is a review of the progress being made by each of the African cassava breeders towards modernizing their breeding programs by assessing measures being taken to accelerate genetic gains and breeding improvement plan implementation,” said Chiedozie Egesi, NextGen Cassava project manager and Cornell adjunct professor of plant breeding and genetics, from Nigeria. “This will help make the breeding programs more efficient.”

About taking on the challenge of improving a complex crop like cassava, Egesi said, “In the first five years of the project, we were able to prepare our tools. For the second phase of the NextGen Cassava project, we must work equally hard to deliver the results of our efforts to farmers.”

Egesi believes the project’s success is due to the strong support it has received from local and international partners during the first phase, and is excited that NextGen Cassava is expanding its efforts to help cassava breeders better understand the populations it serves.

The National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI), under the authority of the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) of Uganda, has been a project partner from the beginning. Despite the importance of cassava to the country’s food security, the crop has long been threatened by cassava mosaic disease and cassava brown streak virus. Without intervention, these pathogens are capable of completely devastating farmers’ fields and leaving them with nothing to harvest. 

Leveraging technologies to improve an orphan crop

NextGen Cassava researchers have harnessed a variety of new breeding technologies to rapidly identify and breed varieties that can withstand the onslaught of diseases while matching the preferences and needs of those who consume cassava. By deploying the technique of genomic selection — a tool that allows plant breeders to select the most promising lines without having to wait for individual plants to grow to full maturity — they have shortened the total breeding cycle for a new variety from 8 to 10 years down to 5 to 6 years. This, along with improved protocols for flowering and multiplication of planting material developed by plant biologists on the project, will allow new varieties to reach farmers’ fields much sooner.

In addition to maintaining Cassavabase, an open source database that helps breeders manage information about field trials, researchers are testing how to measure cassava root quality and other physical characteristics with new methods, including the use of near infrared spectroscopy and machine learning.

“I am happy that in my lifetime, I have witnessed the inclusive nature of science,” Kawuki said. “This project has provided a platform for enhanced and meaningful collaboration among many national, academic, and international groups to focus on cassava for the benefit of societies that primarily depend on this crop." 

NextGen Cassava is in the second year of its second five-year phase, which includes a $35 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and aid from the U.K. government.

In addition to Cornell University and NaCRRI, NextGen Cassava partners with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), and the National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI) in Nigeria; the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement in Ghana; the National Crops Resources Research Institute and Makerere University in Uganda; the Tanzania Agricultural Research Institute; the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) in Brazil and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia. In the US, collaborators include the Boyce Thompson Institute at Cornell, the University of Hawaii, and the USDA-ARS in Ithaca.



(l-r) Joseph Onyeke, plant pathologist and NextGen Cassava lead at NRCRI, Chiedozie Egesi from IITA and Cornell, Robert Kawuki from NARO, and Jean-Luc Jannink from USDA-ARS in Ithaca, inspect new cassava varieties during a field visit to research fields at the NaCRRI station in Namulonge, Uganda.  CREDIT: Canaan Boyer/Cornell Cassava preferences and breeding characteristics like texture, taste and color are bred into new varieties developed by NextGen Cassava breeders, and under discussion at NaCRRI by (r) Ugo Chijioke, food scientist from NRCRI, and survey researchers (l) Durodola Owoade from IITA and (center) Hale Tufan from Cornell. CREDIT: Chris Knight/Cornell

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