Could the drought-resistant crop cassava, grown primarily in the developing world and virtually unknown to U.S. consumers, be Africa's key to developing an innovative agricultural industry while simultaneously reducing poverty?
Some believe the answer is yes, and that cassava, which can be made into everything from flour to tapioca, could create a positive domino effect in Africa with economic empowerment leading to a reduced need for foreign food aid in impoverished areas.
"We hope to see cassava as a means of generating income, as opposed to just a staple crop, and feeding more people. It is a crop that a lot of people prefer and has a lot of advantages to other crops. It provides a lot of food security because the roots can stay in the ground for years," said Richard Sayre, a professor of plant cellular and molecular biology at Ohio State University.
Sayre oversees the BioCassavaPlus Project, an initiative that has received $12 million in funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation since 2005. The project aims to find ways to better the nutritional value of cassava and improve its shelf life to nearly two weeks from the current one to two days.
"Cassava has been ignored, because it is a crop of poor people who live in poor countries. Until the Gates foundation, there has really been little research. I have been working on cassava since 1988, yet didn't get substantial funding until [recent years]," Sayre noted.
In Africa, about 70 percent of cassava production is used as food, according to the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization. Cassava is naturally rich in carbohydrates and vitamin C, but low in vitamin A and protein and considered a staple food for roughly 300 million Africans, or nearly 40 percent of the continent.
But there are distinct disadvantages to cassava consumption in its current natural form. Its roots are low in protein and the food is deficient in essential micronutrients such as zinc, vitamin A and iron. After the roots are harvested, particular strains of cassava can produce possibly toxic levels of cyanogens that can create lethal cyanide production.
These toxins can be eradicated from the food once proper processing is completed. Women and young children, the primary processors of cassava, are especially susceptible to such poisoning.
Three years into the project, Sayre's team has been able to genetically modify cassava to dramatically increase its nutritional value -- adding protein, iron, zinc and vitamins A and E -- two years ahead of schedule.
With global food prices increasing, Sayre says this is a major development in ensuring complete nutrition to people who wouldn't likely receive it any other way.
Yvonne Pinto is the program officer for the Great Lakes Cassava Initiative, another project focused on the cassava crop. The program's mission is to aid more than a million smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa with improved planting methods that can help them grow healthier crops more resistant to disease.
"The project has already helped more than 50,000 farmers grow cassava free of cassava mosaic disease. The goal of the four-year project is to reach 1 million farmers, " stated Pinto, " Since diseases always evolve and sometimes overcome resistance, the project also aims to provide diagnostic tools to detect new viruses, such as the cassava brown streak virus recently reported in the region."
Their efforts include strategic partnerships with Catholic Relief Services and approximately 60 local NGOs and partners in six countries: Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and Tanzania.
Nigerian cassava farmer Olu Adubifa has high hopes for the development of cassava as a cash crop. He says the further development of cassava uses would introduce farming technologies that could transform local farming into large scale farming that could feed people all over Africa, not just one local village.
Adubifa added that it's the lack of research and technology in tropical crops like cassava that has contributed to poverty. "If it had been the United States who was blessed with this cassava, they would have done so many different things with it," he said.
The only major objective that scientists have yet to accomplish is to increase the shelf-life of the crop, but scientists are currently pursuing promising leads that could accomplish this objective over the next six months.
"Nobody has ever fixed that in any crop, so it's something that is definitely challenging. We have identified a way to reduce the free radicals associated with the decaying process," Sayre stated. He estimates that an improved cassava plant could be introduced to farmers in as little as two to three years."We are very optimistic that it will be a major crop in the future of African agribusiness," Sayre said.