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IBADAN, Dec 30 2011 (IPS) - Using hybridisation and selective breeding, researchers in Nigeria have developed three new yellow varieties of cassava, a staple crop in much of Africa, which they say will help fight malnutrition caused by vitamin A deficiency in the region.
But the research breakthrough has been dismissed by Friends of the Earth Nigeria (FoEN), which told the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) research team in Ibadan to stop meddling with one of Nigeria’s key food crops, arguing that they were undermining biodiversity.
Activists with the environmental group also say that two carrots can easily provide the daily vitamin A requirement.
Earlier this month, the IITA, working with the National Root Crops Research Institute, announced the successful breeding of cassava plants that naturally produce a higher level of beta-carotene, a natural chemical responsible for the orange colour in fruits and vegetables.
The body converts beta-carotene into the essential vitamin A. Vegetables such as carrots, broccoli and spinach are good sources of beta-carotene, a powerful antioxidant important in preventing certain cancers and slowing the progression of eye cataracts, among other health benefits.
Carbohydrate-rich cassava – a perennial woody shrub with edible roots – is the third staple crop in the world after wheat and rice, and is the basis of the diet of more than 600 million people in the developing world.
The average daily consumption of cassava in Nigeria, Africa’s largest producer of the crop, is 600 grams per capita. But the country is set to double its current annual production of 37 million tonnes under a “cassava transformation agenda” launched in August 2011 to boost value addition through demand-driven production and improved yields.
Peter Kulakow, a plant breeder and geneticist at the IITA in Nigeria, said that after 20 years of research, this is the first time cassava varieties with sufficient beta-carotene, also known as pro-vitamin A, to address significant nutritional health needs have been released in Africa. The three new varieties have not been patented as they are considered a global public good in reducing hunger and poverty.
“Hidden hunger caused by lack of vitamin A is a serious problem that has not been sustainably solved by other interventions, especially for women and young children,” Kulakow, the IITA Cassava Crop Leader, told IPS. “If normal consumption of yellow cassava can have a positive impact on the health of women and children, then this will be a major breakthrough.”
The IITA says it has used traditional selective breeding in its cassava programme, in which selected plants with desired characteristics are crossed and seed grown from the hybrid. Progeny seedlings that have the desired traits – in this case, high beta-carotene content – are selected. The seedlings are propagated from stem cuttings.
“None of the released IITA improved varieties contain products of what is commonly known as genetic modification or genetic engineering,” Kulakow said.
But FoEN believes the IITA is involved in GM research, and demanded a halt to any research on genetically modified cassava in Nigeria.
“We can get vitamin A from carrots,” Mariann Bassey, coordinator of Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (FoEN), told IPS. “We do not need this so called ‘biofortified’ cassava. Why will you (IITA) not leave this classic Southern crop alone?”
Bassey said biofortified cassava research was a replay of what she termed the “Golden Rice hoax”. According to Bassey, the infamous Golden Rice, developed in 1999 and offered as a panacea for vitamin A deficiency (VAD), had fundamental problems. She said an adult would need to eat around nine kg of cooked rice a day for the required intake of vitamin A, whereas eating just two carrots would suffice.
“We perfectly understand the lure for cassava, a staple food crop consumed by millions of people all over Nigeria and many parts of the world,” said Bassey. “But aside from profits, you want to use this ‘biofortified’ gimmick as a major frontier for the control of the food supply of a vast number of our people and as an in-road for the legitimisation of biotech crops in Nigeria.”
VAD is a major health problem in Africa. But timely provision of vitamin A in food and supplements prevents blindness among pregnant women and children.
According to the World Health Organisation, an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind annually, with half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight. And in pregnant women VAD causes night blindness and may increase the risk of maternal mortality.
About 20 percent of pregnant women and 30 percent of children under five in Nigeria suffer from VAD.
In Africa and Southeast Asia, where levels of VAD among young children and pregnant women are the highest in the world, the challenge is to roll out long-term solutions to the problem. Current interventions to prevent VAD include encouraging proper breastfeeding of infants and the provision of vitamin A supplements, vitamin A-rich diets and food fortification.
Bassey said that as Nigeria’s staple food crop, cassava should not be toyed with. She pointed out that many varieties of the crop have been adapted to the environment, as farmers have over time mastered environmentally friendly and sustainable cultivation methods and processes.
“We have a right to maintain this staple crop without any threat of contamination and consequent loss of local knowledge,” said Bassey. “Nigerians and indeed Africans in general do not need an exotic ‘biofortied cassava’ of dubious value that may lead to yet-unknown health complications and would definitely lead to a severe erosion of our biodiversity.”
According to the IITA, the first planting materials of the three improved cassava varieties will be available for free to over 25,000 farmers in the target states of Oyo, Akwa Ibom, Imo and Benue in 2012. Rapid multiplication has begun in the four states, under a programme to distribute planting materials to villages.
HarvestPlus, a global programme dedicated to breeding more nutritious staple crops to improve nutrition in developing countries, and its partners expect more than 150,000 households to be eating vitamin A-rich cassava by mid-2014.
According to the IITA, farmers who have participated in the research project love the varieties for their high yields and resistance to major diseases and pests.
“Demand for these varieties has already started, but it will take some time before we have enough quantities to give out,” said Paul Ilona, HarvestPlus manager for Nigeria.
But while the research was widely hailed as a breakthrough, there are no guarantees that farmers – who are particular about yields, quality, and pest and disease resistance traits of their crops – will adopt the improved varieties.
“These varieties come with information on their nutritional status, and this has been a concern for most, because cassava is poor nutritionally in terms of micronutrients,” Chiedozie Egesi, a cassava breeder at the National Root Crops Research Institute in Nigeria, told IPS. “The roots of these varieties are coloured yellow due to the presence of high levels of beta-carotene, the precursor for vitamin A.”
Responding to concerns about low yields and susceptibility to rot, Kulakow said the new yellow varieties had very good yields, although not as high as some white-fleshed varieties.
“We are working to produce the next generation of varieties that will have both higher pro-vitamin A content and higher yields,” Kulakow told IPS. “Compared to unimproved varieties, the new varieties are very competitive.”
Cassava can be harvested from seven months to over 18 months after planting, depending on the specific variety. The new yellow varieties have not been tested much beyond 15 months. Kulakow said that while cassava roots will store a very long time in the ground, once harvested, they have a short shelf-life and must be processed or consumed within a few days.
“There is some evidence that the antioxidant properties of yellow root cassava may help extend shelf-life,” he said, adding that the IITA was testing the shelf-life of vitamin A- enriched cassava and normal white cassava.
During pre-release trials of the varieties organised by the IITA in Nigeria in 2010, Chief Tola Adepomola, president of the Nigeria Cassava Growers Association, said the yellow cassava varieties would cut down on the cost of producing gari, a widely- consumed fermented, granulated flour made from cassava.
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