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Plant Virus Responsible For Wiping Out African Food Staple Cassava Continues To Spread

May 07, 2013 01:13 PM EDT
A farmer dries cassava while harvesting on a field.
(Photo : Reuters)

A disease responsible for killing entire crops of cassava has moved as far south as Angola and may be looking westward into Nigeria, the world’s biggest producer of the root consumed by an estimated 500 million Africans, according to AP.

For this reason, scientists and experts in agriculture announced plans to meet in Bellagio, Italy this week in order to devise an attack plan on the deadly plant virus called the Cassava Brown Streak Disease, or CBSD, that’s ravaged East Africa for nearly a decade.

Among those participating in the meeting are major funders such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Currently, the disease is spreading too quickly for scientists to measure its impacts, according to a study published last year in the journal Advances in Virology, though the article reported a moderate infection with up to 30 percent of root damage can decrease the tubers’ market value from $55 a ton to less than $5 a ton.

Best estimates, according to the study, place economic losses of up to $100 million annually to the African farmer..

What’s more, a new, more aggressive strain identified in Uganda five years ago has effectively wiped out 80 percent of harvests in some areas of the country, Chris Omongo of Uganda’s National Crops Resources Research Institute told the AP.

According to Claude Fauquet, the co-founder of the Global Cassava Partnership for the 21st Century, the situation requires the kind of international effort shown in the creation of the virus-free potato after World War II and several times since in the cases of plants such as sugar cane and sweet potatoes.

Such an effort has not taken place in Africa, Fauquet told the AP, for several reasons, including corruption as well as differences in transportation, communication and infrastructure between the continent’s nations.

Cassava is believed to become especially important as the Earth’s temperature continues due ts natural resistance to drought given its ability to simply shut down until it rains. Furthermore, it can be left in the ground and stored there, thus offering food security for the future.

“In the next 40 years, starting now, we need to invest in cassava because it could tremendously help Africa and the world but also so that we are more prepared for more diseases,” Fauquet said.

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