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05/07/2013

The race to save cassava in Africa is on

Cassava
A Nigerian farmer holds cassava roots. Experts have reported new outbreaks of virus that damage the vegetable crop. (AFP photo)

Cassava, the vegetable that could be Africa’s miracle crop, is in trouble.  

Scientists say a disease destroying entire crops has spread out of East Africa and into the heart of the continent and is attacking plants as far south as Angola and now threatens to move west into Nigeria, the world’s biggest producer of the potato-like root that helps feed 500 million Africans.

Claude Fauquet, co-founder of the Global Cassava Partnership for the 21st Century, told The Associated Press that the devastating results are already dramatic today but could be catastrophic tomorrow if nothing is done to halt the Cassava Brown Streak Disease, or CBSD.

He said that Africa is losing as much as 50 million tonnes of cassava each year to the disease.

The tropical root vegetable grows well in poor quality soil and high temperatures, making it resistant to climate change. It requires almost no labour to grow.

That’s not all: its roots are rich in carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. It is already a dietary staple throughout the continent, and it could feed more. The vegetable can also be used as an industrial starch to produce plywood, textiles and paper.

It is also a vital cash-crop for millions of small farmers.

But now, there are fears that the epidemic is pushing into West Africa, and could reach Nigeria. Fauquet said scientists must act fast to keep it from reaching West Africa.

A group of scientists are meeting in Italy this week to work out a plan to fight the disease that is killing cassava. The conference is "dedicated to declaring war on cassava viruses in Africa."

READ MORE: Does cassava hold the secret to climate change adaptation?

Raveena Aulakh is the Star's environment reporter. She is intrigued by climate change and its impact, now and long-term, and wildlife. Follow her on Twitter @raveenaaulakh

Comments

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It might help contextualize the story for readers if you also include the fact that cassava was originally a New World crop, and that most Canadians would be familiar with cassava products such as tapioca starch (from which tapioca pudding is made) and tapioca pearls (used in bubble tea, etc.).

Anybody who frequents some Caribbean nations would know Cassava as Yuca. It's a wonderful dish called Yuca con Mojo when in Cuba or Miami.

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