In tropical regions around the world, and especially in Sub-Saharan and East Africa, some 800 million people depend in part on a daily diet of cassava, a tuberous root much like a potato. Cassava is the world’s third-largest source of calories, and it features several outstanding characteristics: not only is it rich in carbohydrates, but it grows well in poor soils with minimal rainfall. And as a perennial, it can be harvested as needed, making it dependable in times of crisis.
But since the early 1990s, cassava has come under attack. Two viruses, cassava mosaic disease (CMD) and cassava brown streak disease (CBSD), have been devastating crops and raising the specter of the 19th century Irish potato famine, which also was caused by a virus and which led to the deaths of more than 1 million people and displaced millions more.
Since 2005, the company and the Monsanto Fund have been working with scientists at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center to develop new forms of cassava that are genetically enhanced to resist these viruses. Other collaborators in VIRCA include the National Crop Resources Research Institute in Uganda, the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, and the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, based in Nigeria.
Other contributions come from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. As a major donor, Monsanto Fund has contributed nearly $13 million to VIRCA. Monsanto also has contributed the expertise of its scientists, who have learned about virus resistance from their work on tomatoes and other crops in which Monsanto has a direct interest.
The intended enhanced cassava cultivars created by the VIRCA project will be readily available to farmers in the same way traditional cassava is being offered currently. The commercialization process could start as soon as 2015. Field tests for virus-resistant strains of cassava are under way now and appear promising.