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Urgent action needed to stem cassava virus threatening East Africa – UN agency

David Monniaux

Urgent action needed to stem cassava virus threatening East Africa – UN agency

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is urging swift action to tackle a cassava virus that is affecting large parts of East Africa and threatening a staple food crop for much of the region.

The Cassava Brown Streak Disease (CBSD), a new variant that is particularly affecting countries in the Great Lakes region, is on the verge of becoming an epidemic, according to a news release issued today by the Rome-based FAO.

The agency has called for an urgent increase in funding, research, training, surveillance and other measures to help farmers and breeders.

“The appearance of the disease in previously unaffected areas, and the lack of continued funding for research and development work to address CBSD in the region, have added to the threat already presented by Cassava Mosaic Disease (CMD),” stated the agency.

Cassava can account for as much as a third of the total calorie intake for people in countries such as Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Surveillance conducted by Rwanda's National Agricultural Research Institute in 2010 showed a 15.7 per cent rate of infection on local varieties and 36.9 per cent in improved varieties.

“None of the cassava varieties currently being distributed to farmers seem to be tolerant to the effects of CBSD,” said Jan Helsen, leader of FAO's European Union-funded Regional Cassava Initiative in Eastern and Central Africa.

“We urgently need to get information on the extent and severity of the outbreak, and to support investments to identify disease-tolerant varieties and coping strategies for farmers.”

FAO noted that timely detection of the disease has been a challenge because it manifests itself in different ways depending on local conditions. An apparently healthy plant may be found to have spoiled roots only when harvested.

The agency is calling for short-term measures such as stepping up disease surveillance and conducting regular inspections increasing the sensitization of communities to the threat of CBSD and using hands-on training for farmers.

It is also recommending a ban on the distribution of infected plants between districts and zones, and, in the event of infection, using coping strategies such as the early harvest of cassava, before symptoms appear and significant damage can be done.