It was his commitment to helping farmers that led Chiedozie to forsake his dream of becoming a surgeon, and instead to train as a plant breeder and help smallholder farmers in Nigeria. Having grown up in a small town in south-eastern Nigeria where poverty was a daily reality, he was particularly concerned about food security and nutrition for the people. He dreamt of developing cassava varieties that could beat the pests and diseases that often devastate such crops.
Peeling cassava roots.
“The food people grow should be nutritious, resistant and high-yielding enough to allow them to sell some of it and make money for other things in life, such as building a house, getting a motorbike or sending their kids to school,” Chiedozie says.
Nigeria is the most populous African country, with a population of more than 174 million. The main staple food is cassava, making Nigeria the world’s largest producer and consumer of the crop. But cassava is also important in other African countries. It is grown by nearly every farming family in sub-Saharan Africa. Africa produced nearly 140 million metric tonnes of cassava in 2012 – but most of the production is low-yielding subsistence farming for food by small-scale farmers for food for their own households alone.
After almost eight years working on GCP-supported cassava projects, Chiedozie is proud of what they have managed to accomplish: “That we’ve been able to give African farmers the varieties that they will love to grow is my biggest achievement”.
Meet Chiedozie and hear all about his research and the importance of cassava in the video series below (or watch on YouTube):
In 2010, work by Chiedozie and the NRCRI team, in collaboration with a transnational network of partners, resulted in the official release to Nigerian farmers of Africa’s first cassava variety developed using molecular-breeding techniques. Known as UMUCASS33 (or CR 41-10), it was resistant to cassava mosaic disease (CMD) – a devastating plant disease that can wipe out entire cassava crops – and also highly nutritious. In addition to a stream of further disease-resistant varieties, in 2012 they followed this accomplishment with the release of a high-starch variety bred using molecular techniques.
Nigerian women at work processing cassava.
In 2011, the cassava team together with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and HarvestPlus (another CGIAR Challenge Programme focussed on the nutritional enrichment of crops), released three cassava varieties rich in pro-vitamin A, which hold the potential to provide children under five and women of reproductive age with up to 25 percent of their daily vitamin A requirement – a figure Chiedozie and his team are now ambitiously striving to increase to 50 percent. In 2014, they released three more pro-vitamin A varieties with higher concentrations of beta-carotene.
These new and improved varieties – all generated as a direct or indirect result of his engagement in GCP projects – are, Chiedozie says, worth their weight in gold for the people of Africa.
Research that delivers benefits to poor farmers is what drives Chiedozie. In addition to the direct rewards of new varieties there are other highlights from his involvement with GCP, indicating a long term change in breeding science: “People are now using improved or modern techniques in breeding; people think about database management in cassava breeding across Africa; and African breeders are getting PhDs in molecular breeding.”
After his initial GCP training at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, Chiedozie engaged in other capacity-building opportunities, including a one-year visiting scientist fellowship at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia. The significance of these early GCP opportunities was, Chiedozie says, momentous: “Prior to my GCP work, I was more or less a plant breeder, and a conventional one at that. Whilst I’d been exposed to molecular tools during my early work on yam and other crops, I was not applying them in my work back then.”
Chiedozie emphasises that such training opportunities are vital for the future food security of Africa. “We raised up a new crop of cassava breeders in Africa – people who were bold enough to take up a molecular breeding project and pursue it with support from the international centres. And today we are seeing the results of that. Cassava breeding programmes are standing today because of our quality of seeds sown in the past.”
The networking opportunities offered by the Cassava Community of Practice – founded by GCP and now hosted by the Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP) – have meant that Chiedozie and his colleagues could expand their collaboration at the local, national and regional levels: “We now have a network of cassava breeders that you can count on and relate with in different countries. This has really widened our horizons and also made our work more visible,” he says, citing effective links formed with Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, Sierra Leone and South Sudan.
Selling fufu, a staple food made with cassava flour, at a market in Nigeria.
A paradigm shift
These opportunities have led to what Chiedozie calls a ‘paradigm shift’ in how national research agencies are viewed by donors and research investors: “GCP helped us to build an image for ourselves in Nigeria and in Africa, and this created a confidence in other global actors, who, on seeing our ability to deliver results, are choosing to invest in us.
“Our work with GCP helped us to gain that capacity that we needed to be able to negotiate or even make a request for funding. And people are able to trust that you can deliver if you have delivered in the past for an organisation like GCP. So it gave us credibility; it gives us a platform to be able to speak to donors directly, and donors can now approach us, which never used to happen in pre GCP days.”
Hear from Chiedozie on the beneficial outcomes of GCP – in terms not only of variety releases but also of attracting further projects, prestige, and enthusiastic young breeders – in the video below (or on YouTube):
For Chiedozie, his dream of helping his country’s struggling farmers and people is coming true. He has no regrets about dropping his dream of becoming a surgeon for one of helping his country as a plant breeder: “Coming from Umuahia, a small town in the southeast of the country, I grew up in an environment where you see people who are struggling, weak from disease, poor, and with no opportunities to send their children to school.
“Despite the social injustice around me, I always thought there was opportunity to improve people’s lives. This is what the GCP-supported research has helped me to do, even faster than I would have believed possible.”
Beyond the glittering coastline of what was once known as the Gold Coast, Ghana’s shrublands and rich forested hills are split by forking rivers that reach inland through the country’s lush tropics, into drier western Africa. In the past 40 years, seven major droughts have battered the people of Africa – with the most significant and devastating occurring in the Sahel region and the Horn of Africa in the early 1970s and 1980s.
This little girl in Kenya already seems to know that cassava roots are precious.
But despite the massive social disruption and human suffering that these droughts cause, life goes on. In south-eastern Ghana and in Togo, the three-million-plus people who speak the Ewe language have a word for this. It is agbeli: ‘There is life’. It is no coincidence that this word is also their name for a tropical and subtropical crop that survives through the worst times to feed Africa’s families: cassava.
Cassava is a lifeline for African people, and is a particularly important staple food for poorer farmers. More cassava is produced in Africa than any other crop, and it is grown by nearly every farming family in sub-Saharan Africa, supplying about a third of the region’s daily energy intake. In the centuries since Portuguese traders introduced this Amazonian plant to Africa, cassava has flourished, yielding up to 40 tonnes per hectare.
Hear more on just why cassava is so important to food security from Emmanuel Okogbenin, of Nigeria’s National Root Crops Research Institute, in the video below (or watch on Youtube):
African countries produced nearly 140 million tonnes of cassava in 2012 – but most of the production is subsistence farming by small-scale farmers. Even the undisputed global cassava giant, Nigeria, currently produces only just enough to feed its population – and although the country is increasingly moving towards production of cassava for export as an industrial raw material, the poorest farmers often do not produce enough to sell, or have access to these markets.
Because cassava does so well on poor soils, on marginal land and with little rainfall, it can outlast its more sophisticated crop competitors: wheat, rice and maize. In fact, under harsh conditions such as drought, the amount of energy a given area of cassava plants can produce in the form of starchy carbohydrates outstrips all other crops. Chiedozie Egesi, a plant breeder and geneticist at Nigeria’s National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI), describes cassava as “the crop you can bet on when every other thing is failing”.
Despite cassava’s superhero cape, however, there’s no denying that its production is not at its highest when faced with diseases, pests, low-nutrient soils and drought. How plants deal with problems like low nutrients or dry conditions is called ‘stress tolerance’ by scientists. Improving this tolerance – plus resistance to diseases and pests – is the long-term goal for staple crops around the world so that they have higher yields in the face of capricious weather and evolving threats.
In the 1980s, catastrophe struck cassava production in East and Central Africa. A serious outbreak of cassava mosaic disease (CMD) – which first slowly shrivels and yellows cassava leaves, then its roots – lasted for almost 15 years and nearly halved cassava yields in that time. Food shortages led to localised famines in 1993 and 1997.
Other diseases affecting cassava include cassava brown streak disease (CBSD), cassava bacterial blight, cassava anthracnose disease and root rot. CBSD is impossible to detect above ground. Its damage is revealed only after harvest, when it can be seen that the creeping brown lesions have spoilt the white flesh of the tubers, rendering them inedible. Many cassava diseases are transmitted through infected cuttings, affecting the next generation in the next season. Pests that also prey on cassava include the cassava green mite and the variegated grasshopper.
Between the effects of drought, diseases, pests and low soil nutrients, cassava yields vary widely – losses can total between 50 and 100 percent in the worst times.
Symptoms of cassava mosaic disease (CMD) and cassava brown streak disease (CBSD), both of which can cripple cassava yields.
GCP takes the first steps to kick start cassava research
The next step forward for cassava appeared to be research towards breeding stronger and more resilient cassava varieties. However, cassava research had long been neglected – scientists say it’s a tricky crop that has garnered far less policy, scientific and monetary interest than the comparatively glamorous crops of maize, rice and wheat.
Watch as Emmanuel tells us more about the complexities and challenges of cassava breeding in the video below (or on YouTube):
Cassava is a plant which ‘drags its feet’: creating new plants has to be done from cuttings, which are costly to cut and handle and don’t store well; the plant takes up to two years to grow to maturity; and it is onerous to harvest. Elizabeth Parkes, of Ghana’s Crops Research Institute (CRI) (currently on secondment at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, IITA), says the long wait can be difficult.
This is where the work of scientists funded by the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme (GCP) came in. Plant breeder and molecular geneticist Emmanuel Okogbenin of NRCRI led the cassava research push launched in 2010. He explains that before GCP, “most national programmes didn’t really have established crop breeding programmes, and didn’t have the manpower” to do the scale of research GCP supported.
Usually, researchers looking to breed crops that are more resistant to drought, diseases and pests would use conventional breeding methods that could take considerable time to deliver any results, especially given cassava’s slow path to maturity. Researchers would be trying to select disease- and pest-resistant plants by looking at how they’re growing in the field, without any way to see the different genetic strengths each plant has.
An IITA researcher exams cassava roots in the field.
This is where new ‘molecular breeding’ tools are particularly useful, given that – genetically – cassava presents more of a challenge to breeders than its cereal counterparts. Like many other vegetatively propagated crops, cassava is highly heterozygous, meaning that the counterpart genes on paired chromosomes tend to be different versions, or alleles, rather than the same. This makes it difficult to identify good parent plants for breeding and, after these are crossed, to accurately select progeny with desired traits. Useful – or detrimental – genes can be present in a cassava plant’s genetic code but not reflected in the plant itself, making breeding more unpredictable – and adding extra obstacles to the hunt for the exact genes that code for better varieties of cassava.
Although late to the world of molecular breeding, cassava had not missed its chance. Guided by GCP’s ambitious remit to increase food security through modern crop breeding, GCP-supported scientists have applied and developed molecular breeding methods that shorten the breeding process by identifying which plants have good genes, even before starting on that long cassava growth cycle. Increasing the capacity of local plant breeders to apply these methods has great potential for delivering better varieties to farmers much faster than has traditionally been the case.
Charting cassava’s genetic material was the first step in the researchers’ molecular quest. Part of the challenge for African and South American researchers was to create a genetic map of the cassava genome. Emmanuel describes the strong foundation that these early researchers built for those coming after: “It was significant when the first draft of the cassava genome sequence was released. It enabled rapid progress in cassava research activities and outcomes, both for GCP and cassava researchers worldwide.”
Cassava on sale in Kampala, Uganda.
Once cassava’s genome had been mapped, the pace picked up. In just one year, GCP-supported scientists phenotyped and genotyped more than 1000 genetically different cassava plants – that is, measured and collected a large amount of information about both their physical and their genetic traits – searching for ‘superstar’ plants with resistance to more than one crop threat. During this process, scientists compare plant’s physical characteristics with their genetic makeup, looking for correlations that reveal regions of the DNA that seem to contain genes that confer traits they are looking for, such as resistance to a particular disease. Within these, scientists then identify sequences of DNA, or ‘molecular markers’, associated with these valuable genes or genetic regions.
Plant breeders can use this knowledge to apply an approach known as marker-assisted selection, choosing their breeding crosses based directly on which plants contain useful genes, using markers like tags. This makes producing better plant varieties dramatically faster and more efficient. “It narrowed the search at an early stage,” explains Emmanuel, “so we could select only material that displayed markers for the genetic traits we’re looking for. There is no longer any need to ship in tonnes of plant material to Africa.”
Like breadcrumbs leading to a clue, breeders use markers to lead to identifying actual genes (rather than just a site on the genome) that give certain plants desirable characteristics. However, this is a particularly difficult process in cassava. Genes are often obscured, partly due to cassava’s highly heterozygous nature. In trials in Africa, where CMD is widespread, resistant types were hard to spot when challenged with the disease, and reliably resistant parents were hard to pin down.
This meant that two decades of screening cassava varieties from South America – where CMD does not yet exist yet – had identified no CMD-resistance genes. But screening of cassava from Nigeria eventually yielded markers for a CMD-resistance gene – a great success for the international collaborative team led by Martin Fregene, who was based in Colombia at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).
This finding was a win for African plant breeders, as it meant they could use molecular breeding to combine the genes producing high-quality and high-yielding cassava from South America with the CMD-resistance gene found in cassava growing in Nigeria.
Chiedozie Egesi, who led the work on biotic trait markers, explains the importance of combining varieties from South America with varieties from Africa: “Because cassava is not native to Africa, those varieties are not as genetically diverse, so we needed to bring genetic diversity from the centre of origin: South America. Coupling resistance genes from African varieties with genes for very high yields from South America was critical.”
Cassava research leaps forward with new varieties to benefit farmers
GCP’s first investment phase into cassava research stimulated a sturdy injection of people, passion, knowledge and funds into the second phase of research. From the genome maps created during the first phase, some of the world’s best geneticists would now apply genomic tools and molecular breeding approaches to increase and accelerate the genetic gains during breeding, combining farmers’ favourite characteristics with strong resistances and tolerances to abiotic and biotic constraints.
These were breeder and geneticist Chiedozie Egesi (NRCRI, Nigeria), molecular geneticist Morag Ferguson (IITA), genomic scientist Pablo Rabinowicz (University of Maryland, USA) and physiologist and geneticist Alfredo Alves (Brazilian Corporation of Agricultural Research, EMBRAPA). The team shared the vision of enabling farmers to increase cassava production for cash, well beyond subsistence levels.
Garri, or gari, a kind of granular cassava flour used to prepare a range of foods.
If the Accra launch set the stage for the next five years of cassava collaboration, a breakthrough in Nigeria at the end of 2010 set the pace, with the release of Africa’s first cassava variety developed using molecular-breeding techniques. “It was both disease-resistant and highly nutritious – a world-first,” recalls Emmanuel proudly.
Known as UMUCASS33 (or CR41-10), it took its high yield and nutritional value from its South American background, and incorporated Nigerian resistance to devastating CMD attacks thanks to marker-assisted selection. It was also resistant to several other pests and diseases. UMUCASS33 was swiftly followed by a stream of similar disease-busting varieties, released and supplied to farmers.
Never before had cassava research been granted such a boost of recognition, scientific might and organisational will. And never before had there been so much farmer consultation or so many on-farm trials.
“Cassava was an orphan crop and with the help of GCP it is becoming more prominent,” says Chiedozie. “GCP highlighted and enhanced cassava’s role as a major and reliable staple that is important to millions of poor Africans.”
Another important challenge for scientists was to develop a higher-yielding cassava for water-limited environments. The aim was to keep mapping genes for resistance to other diseases and pests and then combine them with favourable genetics that increase yield in drought conditions – no easy feat. Drought’s wicked effect on cassava is to limit the bulk of the tuber, or sometimes to stop the tuber forming altogether. Emmanuel led the work on marker-assisted recurrent selection for drought.
Hear from Chiedozie on the beneficial outcomes of GCP – in terms not only of variety releases but also of attracting further projects, prestige, and enthusiastic young breeders – in the video below (or on YouTube):
Many traits and many varieties
As closely as the cassava teams in Africa were working together, Chiedozie recalls that each country’s environment demanded different cassava characteristics: “We had to select for what worked best in each country, then continue with the research from there. What works fine for East Africa may not be so successful in Nigeria or Ghana”. A core reference set representing most of the diversity of cassava in Africa was improved with the addition of over 564 varieties. Improving the reference set, says project leader Morag Ferguson, “enables the capture of many diverse features of cassava” within a relatively small collection, providing a pathway for more efficient trait and gene discovery.
While mapping of cassava’s genetic makeup carried on, with a focus on drought tolerance, researchers continued to develop a suite of new varieties. They mapped out further genes that provided CMD resistance. In Tanzania, four new varieties were released that combined resistance to both CMD and CBSD – two for the coastal belt and two for the semi-arid areas of central Tanzania. These new varieties had the potential to double the yield of existing commercial varieties. In Ghana too, disease-resistant varieties were being developed.
Built-in disease resistance can make a huge difference to the health of cassava crops. This photo shows a cassava variety resistant to African cassava mosaic virus (ACMV), which causes cassava mosaic disease (CMD), growing on the left, alongside a susceptible variety on the right.
Meanwhile in Nigeria, another variety was released in 2012 with very high starch content – an essential factor in good cassava. This is a critical element to breeding any crop, explains Chiedozie: “A variety may be scientifically perfect, based on a researcher’s perspective, but farmers will not grow it if it fails the test in terms of taste, texture, colour or starchiness.”
Geoffrey Mkamilo, cassava research leader at Tanzania’s Agricultural Research Institute, Naliendele, says that farmer awareness and adoption go hand in hand. Once they had the awareness, he says, “the farmers were knocking on our doors for improved varieties. They and NGOs were knocking and calling.”
After groundwork in Ghana and Nigeria to find potential sources of resistance, cassava varieties that are resistant to bacterial blight and green mites were also developed in Tanzania and then tested. By the time GCP closed in December 2014, these varieties were on their way to commercial breeders for farmers to take up.
Scientists seeking to resolve the bigger challenge of drought resistance have achieved significant answers as well. Researchers have been able to map genetic regions that largely account for how well the crops deal with drought.
Hunt for ‘super powered’ cassava
The hunt was on for drought-tolerance genes in African cassava plants. The end goal was to find as many different drought-related genes as possible, then to put them all together with the applicable disease and pest resistance genes, to make a ‘super powered’ set of cassava lines. Molecular breeders call this process ‘pyramiding’, and in Ghana, Elizabeth Parkes led these projects.
With the help of Cornell University scientists, the researchers compared plants according to their starch content, how they endured a dry season, how they used sunlight and how they dealt with pests and diseases.
Fourteen gene regions or quantitative trait loci (QTLs) were identified for 10 favourable traits from the genetic material in Ghana, while nine were found for the plants in Nigeria – with two shared between the plants from both Ghana and Nigeria. After that success, the identified genes were used in breeding programmes to develop a new generation of cassava with improved productivity.
Pyramiding is important in effective disease resistance; Chiedozie explains in the video below (or on YouTube):
New cassava varieties rich in pro-vitamin A have a telltale golden hue.
The research has also delivered results in terms of Vitamin A levels in cassava. In 2011, the NRCRI team, together with IITA and HarvestPlus (another CGIAR Challenge Programme focussed on the nutritional enrichment of crops), released three cassava varieties rich in pro-vitamin A, which hold the potential to provide children under five and women of reproductive age with up to 25 percent of their daily vitamin A requirement. Since then, the team has aimed to increase this figure to 50 percent. In 2014, they released three more pro-vitamin A varieties with even higher concentrations of beta-carotene.
A field worker at IITA proudly displays a high-yielding, pro-vitamin A-rich cassava variety (right), compared with a traditional variety (left).
The new varieties developed with GCP support are worth their weight in gold, says Chiedozie: “Through these varieties, people’s livelihoods can be improved. The food people grow should be nutritious, resistant and high-yielding enough to allow them to sell some of it and make money for other things in life, such as building a house, getting a motorbike or sending their kids to school.”
Turning from Nigeria to Tanzania, Geoffrey has some remarkable numbers. He says that the national average cassava yield is 10.5 tonnes per hectare. He adds that a new cassava variety, PWANI, developed with GCP support and released in 2012, has the potential to increase yields to 51 tonnes per hectare. And they don’t stop there: the Tanzanian researchers want to produce three million cuttings and directly reach over 2,000 farmers with these new varieties, then scale up further.
A farmer tends her cassava field in northern Tanzania.
Cassava grows up: looking ahead to supporting African families
Emmanuel reflects on how the first release of a new disease-resistant high-yielding cassava variety took fundamental science towards tangible realities for the world’s farmers: “It was a great example of a practical application of marker technology for selecting important new traits, and it bodes well for the future as markers get fully integrated into cassava breeding.”
Emmanuel further believes that GCP’s Cassava Research Initiative has given research communities “a framework for international support from other investors to do research and development in modern breeding using genomic resources.” Evaluations have demonstrated that molecular-assisted breeding can slash between three and five years from the timeline of developing better crops.
Women tend to bear most of the burden of cassava cultivation and preparation. Here a Congolese woman pounds cassava leaves – eaten in many regions in addition to cassava roots – prior to cooking a meal for her family.
But, like cassava’s long growth cycle underground, Emmanuel knows there is still a long road to maturity for cassava as a crop for Africa and in research. “Breeding is just playing with genetics, but when you’re done with that, there is still a lot to do in economics and agronomics,” he says. Revolutionising cassava is about releasing improved varieties carefully buttressed by financial incentives and marketing opportunities.
Rural women in particular stand to benefit from improved varieties – they carry most of the responsibility for producing, processing and marketing cassava. So far, Elizabeth explains: “Most women reported an increase in their household income as a result of the improved cassava, but that is still dependent on extra time spent on cassava-related tasks” – a burden which she aims to diminish.
Elizabeth emphasises that future improvement research has to take a bottom-up approach, first talking to female farmers to ensure that improved crops retain characteristics they already value in addition to the new traits. “Rural families are held together by women, so if you are able to change their lot, you can make a real mark,” she says. Morag echoes this hope: “We are just starting to implement this now in Uganda; it’s a more farmer-centric approach to breeding”. The cassava teams emphasise the importance of supporting women in science too; the Tanzanians teams are aiming for a target of 40 percent women in their training courses.
Meet Elizabeth in the podcast below (or on PodOmatic), and be inspired by her passion when it comed to women in agriculture and in science:
This direct impact goes much further than individuals, says Chiedozie. “GCP’s daring has enabled many national programmes to be self-empowered, where new avenues are unfolding for enhanced collaboration at the local, national and regional level. We’re seeing a paradigm shift.” And Chiedozie’s objectives reach in a circle back to his compatriots: “Through GCP, I’ve been able to achieve my aims of using the tools of science and technology to make the lives of poor Africans better by providing them with improved crops.”
GCP has been crucial for developing the capacity of countries to keep doing this level of research, says Chiedozie: “The developing-country programmes were never taken seriously,” he says. “But when the GCP opportunity to change this came up we seized it, and now the developing-country programmes have the boldness, capacity and visibility to do this for themselves.”
Emmanuel says his proudest moment was when GCP was looking for Africans to take up leadership roles. “They felt we could change things around and set a precedent to bring people back to the continent,” he says. “They appreciated our values and the need to install African leaders on the ground in Africa rather than in Europe, Asia or the Americas.”
“If you want to work for the people, you have to walk with the people – that’s an African concept. Then when you work with the people, you really understand what they want. When you speak, they know they can trust you.” GCP trusted and trod where others had not before, Chiedozie says.
Elizabeth agrees: “In the past, the assumption was always that ‘Africa can’t do this.’ Now, people see that when given a chance to get around circumstances – as GCP has done for us through the provision of resources, motivation, encouragement and training – Africa can achieve so much!”
Farmer Maria Mtele holds recently harvested orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes in a field in Mwasonge, Tanzania.
Sweetpotato has a long history as a lifesaver. The Japanese used it when typhoons demolished their rice fields. It kept millions from starvation in famine-plagued China in the early 1960s and came to the rescue in Uganda in the 1990s, when a virus ravaged the cassava crop.
In sub-Saharan Africa, sweetpotato is proving crucial in the fight against blindness, disease and premature death among children under five. And, as agriculture becomes more market-oriented across the continent, sweetpotato has some significant advantages: it requires fewer inputs and less labour than other crops such as maize, tolerates marginal growing areas and can mature within four months.
On these fertile grounds, researchers across the globe are not underestimating the importance of sweetpotato as a staple crop.
“Yields achieved by resource-poor farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are typically low,” says Roland Schafleitner of the International Potato Center (CIP), based in Peru.
“Improved and well-adapted sweetpotato varieties with increased tolerance to drought, pests and diseases will have a positive impact on food and income security in sub-Saharan Africa and can significantly contribute to increasing productivity,” he says.
At the outset of the work, Roland says: “Breeding efforts were limited by the crop’s genetic complexity and the lack of information available about its genetic resources.
“It was clear that if we could develop genetic tools and make concerted efforts towards understanding the gene pool of sweetpotato, the breeding potential of the crop would improve.”
Farmer Mwanaidi Rhamdani at work in an orange-fleshed sweetpotato field in Mwasonge, Tanzania.
Sub-Saharan Africans getting their vitamin A from sweetpotato
Malnutrition does not always mean a simple lack of calories; research suggests that nutrient shortfalls are an even bigger killer. Vitamin A deficiency is a leading cause of blindness, infectious disease and premature death among children under five and pregnant women in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.
Sweetpotato comes in a wide range of colours. Varieties with dark orange flesh are naturally very rich in the pigment beta-carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A. However, the sweetpotatoes traditionally grown in Africa are pale-fleshed and low in beta-carotene. African consumers were not used to eating colourful sweetpotato – and these orange-fleshed varieties were in any case not well adapted African growing conditions.
Recent years have therefore seen a collaborative effort by researchers across the world to breed orange-fleshed sweetpotato varieties fortified with high levels of beta-carotene, and even enriched with other nutrients, that have also been crossed with local varieties and so are adapted to local conditions and tastes. A crucial part of these efforts has also been to create public awareness and encourage people to grow, eat and buy these new varieties.
Two cheeky young chappies from Mozambique enjoy the sweet taste of orange-fleshed sweetpotato rich in beta-carotene, or pro-vitamin A.
All of this adds to the growing momentum behind sweetpotato. The growing awareness of sweetpotato’s potential nutritional benefits for the poor and food insecure, as well as its value for subsistence farmers as a reliable crop that withstands drought and requires minimal inputs, mean that it is growing in significance.
Orange-fleshed sweetpotato can be used to make a variety of tasty products from doughnuts to chapati.
More than 95% of the world’s sweetpotato crop is grown in developing countries, where it is the fifth most important staple food crop. It is particularly important in many African countries: Madagascar in Southern Africa; Nigeria in West Africa; and those surrounding the Great Lakes in East and Central Africa – Uganda, Malawi, Angola and Mozambique.
According to 2013 figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 3.6 million hectares of sweetpotato were harvested in Africa. While the average global yield of sweetpotato per hectare was 14.8 tonnes, across all East African countries in 2013 it was only half this, at 7.1 tonnes per hectare. In West African nations the average yield was even worse, at 3.7 tonnes per hectare.
Farmers are unable to make the most of their crops because the varieties available to them, including traditional varieties (or landraces) have low resistance to viral diseases and insect pests, and poor tolerance to drought. It is therefore crucial that when developing new varieties breeders are able to efficiently incorporate pest and disease resistance and drought tolerance traits.
New DNA markers identified for sweetpotato disease
The sweetpotato virus disease (SPVD) is the most serious disease affecting sweetpotato in sub-Saharan Africa. It often causes serious yield losses of up to 80–90 percent.
The disease is the result of joint infection by two viruses: the sweetpotato feathery mottle virus and the sweetpotato chlorotic stunt virus. Of the two, the stunt virus is the more problematic.
Wolfgang Grüneberg, also from CIP, says that, in the years 2006–2008, 52 new DNA markers were developed as part of GCP-funded research to improve marker-assisted selection for resistance to the disease.
“The results,” says Wolfgang, Principal Investigator for the research, “looked promising for developing a large number of orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes with resistance to SPVD.”
Immediately following the development of the markers, two varieties of sweetpotato were developed using a cloned gene, Resistan, known to confer resistance to the virus. The first variety was used to improve an SPVD test system so that the disease could be diagnosed earlier if a crop was affected. The second variety underwent field tests in regions in Uganda that were highly affected by the disease.
Sweetpotato vines and roots.
Mobilising the genetic diversity of sweetpotato for breeding
The goals of the GCP-supported work were to develop a diverse genetic resource base for sweetpotato and stimulate the use of new tools in ongoing breeding programmes.
To help transfer this work from high-end laboratories to resource-poor research labs in developing countries, GCP promoted collaboration across institutions and borders. Researchers from Brazil, Mozambique, Uganda and Uruguay worked together on sweetpotato genetic research projects.
As Roland explains, the basic first steps needed to begin to ‘mobilise’ the genetic diversity of sweetpotato were developing a reference set of varieties and improving genomics tools to work with polyploid crops, i.e. those possessing multiple sets of chromosomes, such as sweetpotato.
GCP-supported researchers in Peru and sub-Saharan Africa defined a reference set of 472 varieties of sweetpotato, carefully selected and honed to represent both the diversity of the crop and its most important agronomical and nutritional traits.
“Based on a reference set, genetic markers can be developed that are associated with important characteristics of the crop and can help breeders to select favourable genotypes,” says Roland.
“Based on these sequences,” says Roland, “molecular markers have been designed that can help breeders and gene-bank curators to assess the genetic diversity of their accessions and to perform genetic mapping studies.
“Today, techniques that yield a much larger number of markers for genetic studies and selection are accessible for sweetpotato,” he says.
Mwanaidi Rhamdani (left) works with Maria Mtele in an orange-fleshed sweetpotato field in rural Tanzania.
The genetic lifelines reach Africa
Sweetpotato is one of the most important staple crops in Mozambique, ranking in third position after cassava and maize. The areas harvested in Mozambique in 2013 were 1.7 million hectares of maize, 780,000 hectares of cassava and 120,000 hectares of sweetpotato.
A child eats cooked orange-fleshed sweetpotato in Uganda.
GCP funded breeders in Mozambique and Uganda to learn how to identify genetic markers that would prove useful for future sweetpotato breeding.
“Our African partners visited us at CIP and helped us complete the work on identifying markers,” recalls Roland. “This provided the opportunity for direct ‘technology transfer’ to breeders in the target region.”
The collaboration had, for the first time, created a critical amount of genetic and genomics resources for sweetpotato. The resulting Sweetpotato Gene Index and the new markers were published in a peer-reviewed journal, BMC Genomics (2010) 11:604.
The new genetic resources are in use at CIP in Peru and in breeding programmes in Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Uganda, Uruguay and the USA for the assessment of the genetic diversity of germplasm collections.
“The markers have been used for diversity analysis, especially at the CIP gene bank, and also in Africa,” says Roland, who says the markers will help future research.
“Such analysis guides germplasm conservation decisions, and diversity studies are a great tool to develop core collections and composite genotype sets – subsets of the whole collection – which allow for more practical screening for specific traits than large collections.”
A farmer harvests her pearl millet crop in Ghana’s Upper West Region.
Pearl millet is the only cereal crop that can be grown in some of the hottest and driest regions of Asia and Africa. It is a staple provider of food, nutrition and income for millions of resource-poor people living on these harsh agricultural lands.
Even though pearl millet is well adapted to growing in areas characterised by drought, poor soil fertility and high temperatures, “there are limited genetic tools available for this orphan crop,” reported researcher Tom Hash at the International Crop Science Congress 10 years ago.
“The people who relied on this crop in such extreme environments had not benefitted from the ‘biotechnology revolution’, or even the ‘green revolution’ that dramatically increased food grain production on irrigated lands over a generation ago,” adds Tom, now Principal Scientist (Millet Breeding) in the Dryland Cereals Research Program of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). This lack of research dividends was despite the fact that pearl millet is the sixth most important cereal crop globally.
The use of genetic technologies to improve pearl millet had already made some advances through work carried out in the United Kingdom. The GCP initiative was established to improve food security in developing countries by expanding such available genetic work to create crops bred to tolerate drought, disease and poor soils.
With financial support from GCP, and with the benefit of lessons learnt from parallel GCP genetic research, ICRISAT scientists were able to develop more advanced tools for breeding pearl millet.
He says it is the high protein content of pearl millet that makes it such a crucial crop for developing countries – in Africa, this is the reason people use pearl millet for weaning babies.
“It was interesting to us that African people have used pearl millet as a weaning food for millennia. The reason why was not clear to us until we assessed the protein content,” says Mark. “Its seed has 13–22 percent protein, remarkable for a cereal crop, whereas maize has only eight percent protein, and sorghum has only two percent digestible protein.”
Pearl millet growing in Kenya.
Tom Hash agrees, adding: “More importantly, pearl millet grain has much higher levels of the critically important mineral micronutrients iron and zinc, which are important for neurological and immune system development.
“These mineral micronutrients, although not present in a highly available form, can improve blood iron levels when used in traditional pearl millet-based foods. Pearl millet grain, when fed to poultry, can provide a potentially important source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are also essential for normal neurological development.”
Pearl millet endowed with genetic potential
A farmer with his pearl millet harvest in India.
In a treasure-trove of plant genetic resources, thousands of samples, or accessions, of pearl millet and its wild relatives are kept at ICRISAT’s gene banks in India and Niger.
For pearl millet alone, in 2004 ICRISAT had 21,594 types of germplasm in its vaults at its headquarters in India. This represents a huge reservoir of genetic diversity that can be mined for data and for genetic traits that can be used to improve pearl millet and other crops.
Between 2005 and 2007, with support from GCP, scientists from ICRISAT set to work to do just that, mining these resources for qualities based on observed traits, geographical origin and taxonomy.
Hari D Upadhyaya, Principal Scientist and Director of Genebank at ICRISAT, led the task of developing and genotyping a ‘composite collection’ of pearl millet. To do this, the team created a selection that reduced 21,594 accessions down to 1,021. This collection includes lines that are tolerant to drought, heat and soil salinity; others resistant to blast, downy mildew, ergot, rust and smut; and accessions resistant to multiple diseases.
A traditional pearl millet variety growing in India.
The collection also includes types of pearl millet with high seed iron and zinc content (from traditional farmer varieties, or landraces, from Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Togo), high seed protein content, high stalk sugar content, and other known elite breeding varieties.
The final collection comprised 710 landraces, 251 advanced breeding lines, and 60 accessions from seven wild species.
The GCP-supported scientists then used molecular markers to fingerprint the DNA of plants grown from the collection. Molecular markers are known variations in the sequence of the genetic code, found in different versions within a species, which act as flags in the genome sequence. Some individual markers may be associated with particular useful genes, but markers are useful even without known associations, as the different flags can be compared between samples. In the pearl millet research, scientists searched for similarities and differences among these DNA markers to assess how closely or distantly related the 1,021 accessions were to each other.
This was not only a big step forward for the body of scientific knowledge on pearl millet, but also for the knowledge and skills of the scientists involved. “The GCP work did make some significant contributions to pearl millet research,” says Tom, “mainly by helping a critical mass of scientists working on pearl millet to learn how to appropriately use the genetic tools that have been developed in better-studied fungi, plants and animals (including people).”
GCP extends know-how to Africa
Comparisons of good and bad pearl millet yields in Ghana’s Upper West Region, which has suffered failed rains and rising temperatures.
The semiarid areas of northern and eastern Uganda are home to a rich history and culture, but they are difficult environments for successful food production and security.
In this region, pearl millet is grown for both commercial and local consumption. Its yields, although below the global average, are reasonable given that it is grown on poor sandy soils where other crops fail. Yet despite being a survivor in these harsh drylands, pearl millet can still be affected by severe drought and disease.
GCP helped kick-start work to tackle these problems. With financial support from GCP, and through ACCI, Geofrey Lubade, a scientist from Uganda, was able to study and explore breeding pearl millet that would be suitable for northern Uganda and have higher yields, drought tolerance and rust resistance.
Geofrey now plans to develop the best of his pearl millet lines for registration and release in Uganda, which he expects will go a long way in helping the resource-poor.
But Geofrey’s success is just one example of the benefits from GCP-support. Thanks to GCP, Mark Laing says that his students at ACCI have learnt invaluable skills that save significant time and money in the plant-breeding process.
“Many of our students, with GCP support, have been involved in diversity studies to select for desirable traits,” says Mark – and these students are now working on releasing new crop varieties.
He says that African scientists directly benefitted from the GCP grants for training in biotechnology and genetic studies.
Their work, along with that of a number of other scientists, will have a huge impact on plant breeding in developing countries – long term.
A farmer inspects his millet crop in northwest Ghana.
As Mark explains, once breeders have built up a head of steam there is no stopping them. “Plant breeders take time to start releasing varieties, but once they get started, then they can keep generating new varieties every year for many years,” he says. “And a good variety can have a very long life, even more than 50 years.
“We have already had a significant impact on plant breeding in some African countries,” says Mark. But perhaps more importantly, he says, the work has changed the status of plant breeding and pearl millets as a subject: “It used to be disregarded, but now it is taken seriously as a way to have an impact on agriculture.”
For research and breeding products, see the GCP Product Catalogue and search for pearl millet.