TANZANIA’s efforts in increasing food security by having improved varieties of cassava have received a major boost of 35 million US dollars in new funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and UK aid from the United Kingdom.
According to a statement issued by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) yesterday, Cornell University will expand international efforts to deliver improved varieties of cassava to smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.
“This grant funds a second five-year phase that will allow us to build on previous work and focus on getting improved varieties into farmers’ fields,” said Ronnie Coffman, international plant breeder and director of Cornell’s International Programmes in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who leads the project.
During Phase 1 of the Next Generation Cassava Breeding project - also funded by the Gates Foundation and UK aid from 2012 to 2017 - researchers shortened the breeding cycle for new cassava varieties by improving flowering and using genomic selection.
Through analysing plant genotypes and identifying cassava lines with desirable traits, such as resistance to cassava brown streak disease or high dry matter content, breeders also improved their ability to make selections based on genetics and probability without having to wait for seedlings to reach adulthood.
These methods save breeding time for a crop where flowering and sexual propagation are issues. In Africa, NextGen collaborators include the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture and the National Root Crops Research Institute in Nigeria; the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement in Ghana; the National Crops Resources Research Institute and Makerere University in Uganda and the Tanzania Agricultural Research Institute. Another goal of Phase 1 was to make cassava genomic information publicly accessible on an open database.
Cassava researchers all over the world are now comparing results and improving breeding programmes without duplicating efforts by using Cassavabase. To reduce cost per progeny and improve the quality of data uploaded to Cassavabase in Phase 2, NextGen researchers will use additional methods of whole genome sequencing. “Our focus for the next five years will be to translate this research into breeding practices to increase impact,” said Chiedozie Egesi, NextGen project director and adjunct professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell, who is based at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nigeria.
“A key goal in Phase 2 will be to identify traits preferred by farmers and end-users and incorporate them into new cassava lines to ensure that varieties are responsive to people’s needs.” Egesi said, “We believe we will accelerate genetic gain as well as adopted genetic gain, increase the yields and resilience of cassava production by smallholder farmers and move African cassava breeding toward greater capacity.”
“Among the 30 new clones developed at IITA using our methods, 10 had higher dry matter yield than any clone currently available for smallholder farmers in Nigeria,” said Jean-Luc Jannink, a research plant geneticist with the United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) and Cornell adjunct associate professor in the Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics. “Dry matter yield is a close proxy to food yield.Conservatively, we believe that we will increase the rate of genetic gain in cassava by 30 to 50 per cent.
” Peter Kulakow, IITA cassava breeder and geneticist said, “Genetic gain is a measure of the improvement of plant performance between generations and a goal of most modern breeding programmes.
Swifter improvements mean more new varieties can be tested and released.” At the sixth annual NextGen Cassava meeting, February 19-24 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, teams of NextGen breeders, geneticists, data analysts, computer programmers, food technologists, social scientists and crop protectionists will be focusing on goals for Phase 2 and discussing how to better coordinate and leverage the exchange of germplasm and genotypic and phenotypic data from each other