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TITLE:  DOUBTS OVER CASSAVA PROJECT
SOURCE: East African Magazine
       
http://www.nationmedia.com/eastafrican/current/Magazine/Magazine110920062.htm
DATE:   11 Sep 2006

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DOUBTS OVER CASSAVA PROJECT
East African Magazine, 11 September 2006

Researchers have admitted that varieties of the genetically-modified cassava
that they had declared to be disease-resistant were actually vulnerable to
the devastating cassava mosaic disease. Dagi Kimani reports

CONTROVERSY HAS deepened over a multi-million dollar USAid-supported cassava
research programme, which proponents had said would help boost East Africa's
food security, but which critics have dismissed as an attempt by the United
States to develop alternative sources of "renewable" energy.

In the latest twist, a leading American research facility, the Donald
Danforth Plant Science Centre, has admitted that varieties of
genetically-modified cassava that it had declared to be disease-resistant
are actually vulnerable to the devastating cassava mosaic disease (CMD),
the leading cause of farm losses for the crop.

CMD routinely leads to losses of over 30 per cent of the cassava harvest in
some farms. A statement by the centre dated  May 26, 2006, says that though
resistance to CMD had been established through genetic engineering seven
years ago, "the resistance was subsequently lost, and [changes to] the
plant's DNA had taken place."

Revelations of the resistance failure came even as plans were at an advanced
stage to have the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) test the
transgenic cassava plants under natural field conditions as a preamble to
its release to farmers.

The GM cassava varieties were developed through the Disease-Resistant
Cassava for Kenya Project, which is funded by USAid, whose stated goal was
"to develop and deliver transgenic, disease-resistant cassava planting
materials to farmers in Kenya to increase their harvests and improve their
food security."

Critics of the cassava-research programme, however, say that the objectives
of the project go beyond food security, and touch on the search by the
United States of a cheap source of starch other than maize to manufacture
ethanol to help wean it from oil. The development of a GM cassava would
also help break down resistance to the introduction of genetically-modified
crops across the region.

According to the critics, a senior scientist at Danforth Centre, Dr Claude
Fauquet, admitted as such when he said in a briefing paper that the
"acquisition of the cassava genome sequence will provide a platform to
explore the vast biodiversity within cassava wild species. Ultimately,
these activities will position cassava as a valuable source of renewable
bio-energy."

Together with several other US research facilities, the Danforth Centre, has
in addition to being involved in the effort to develop disease-resistant
varieties of cassava been contracted by the US Department of Energy Joint
Genome Institute (DOE-JGI) to sequence the plant's entire genome.

The DOE-JGI itself acknowledges that cassava is an excellent energy source
which "is grown worldwide as a source of food for approximately one billion
people, raising the possibility that it could be used globally to alleviate
dependence on fossil fuels."

According to the South African-based African Centre for Biosafety, these
admissions mark a "dramatic about-turn from previous commitments to address
hunger and the nutritional needs of people in developing countries."

Proponents of the research programme, however, contend that its critics are
opposed to it purely because of the fact that it involves
genetic-modification, a controversial issue in most African countries
outside South Africa.

Before the latest announcements of setbacks, the Danforth Centre had
released an elaborate programme in which the disease resistant varieties
would be rolled out across East Africa, starting with the distribution of
the region's most popular cassava variety - Ebwanatareka - for adoption by
32,000 Kenyan farming families.

"Successful achievement of the project goal will help 200,000 Kenyan cassava
farmers and their family members increase their food security by controlling
CMD and increasing their cassava harvests by 50 per cent on a sustainable
basis," the Danforth Centre says in its website. "A 50 per cent increase in
yield for these families will generate an additional 63,000 tonnes of food
each year."

The Ebwanatareka variety would then be distributed to Uganda, where it was
projected to substantially raise the country's cassava out-put.

"By deploying the same transgenic variety in Uganda, annual production of
cassava in that country will increase by over 600,000 tonnes, and the total
number of beneficiaries in both countries will increase to over one million
persons," says the Danforth Centre's statement.

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