To many people around the world, the cassava is an exotic crop that they have never eaten. Or so they think. Yet anybody who has tasted tapioca pudding has profited from this versatile plant: Tapioca is a starch that comes from the cassava, a tropical shrub whose tuber is edible.
I don’t eat much cassava either. Farmers don’t grow it in my part of Kenya. Yet it’s a staple crop on my continent—a rich source of carbohydrates for millions of Africans. “Cassava is to the African peasant farmers what rice is to the Asian farmers, or what wheat and potato are to the European farmers,” says Alfred Dixon of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture.
In Tanzania, researchers have figured out how to improve the cassava through biotechnology—a development that everyone ought to celebrate and promote.
This progress comes at a good time because the cassava brown-streak virus has become the leading threat to food security in many parts of East Africa. One study says that the disease can slash a farm’s productivity by as much as 70 percent. When it strikes, many smallholder farmers simply abandon their fields—and each time that happens, Africa’s dire food problems grow a little bit worse.
Biotechnology offers a potential solution. Scientists have learned how to trigger the cassava’s immune-defense system, allowing the plant to fend off the lethal brown-streak virus. These miracle plants are currently in field trials in Tanzania. If the field trials go well, farmers and consumers across the region will benefit. In East Africa, this means many smallholder farmers will experience enhanced cassava production, and hence food security and incomes.
Yet that will happen only if politics doesn’t get in the way of science. In Africa, unfortunately, politics always seems to intrude. Too often, we turn over our public policies to special-interest groups that despise biotechnology for reasons of ideology.
The result is a tragedy for Africa. Our continent routinely fails to feed itself.
In the United States and elsewhere, GM crops have produced an enormous bounty. This year, corn farmers in the Midwest are shattering all-time yield records, in large part because they can grow the best crops science can offer.
From the eyes of this African farmer, though, every year is a pretty good year for American growers. I wish we could enjoy similar levels of success.
The difference is technology. Americans have embraced it—and now they’re growing more food than ever before. In Africa, our governments have resisted GM crops—and we continue to suffer from hunger and malnourishment.
Forty-seven countries occupy the continent of Africa, but only four—Burkina Faso, Egypt, South Africa, and Sudan—have permitted the commercialization of GM crops. The rest of us must rely on farm technologies from the last century, even as we confront the 21st-century problems of climate change, environmental sustainability, and rapid population growth.
The cassava would be an excellent way to introduce more biotechnology into Africa. Most of its production goes straight into human bellies, feeding people directly. It’s also an essential famine-reserve crop. When other staples struggle or fail due to disease or drought, many Africans turn to the cassava for basic sustenance.
So a cassava plant that fends off the deadly brown-streak disease would be a blessing—and not just for the people who depend on this particular plant. Its commercial introduction could pave the way for Africa to accept more technology, especially in neighboring countries. Right now, goods and services, including crops, move with relative ease across our borders.
If Tanzania were to permit the cultivation of GM cassava, consumers and farmers in Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda would see the advantages and benefit in their food security strategies. My own country of Kenya, which shares a long border with Tanzania, might finally put an end to the delays that keep GM crops off our farms and abundant food off our plates.
Kenyan researchers already have tested GM varieties of cassava, corn, cotton, sorghum, and sweet potato. We know they’re safe, both from our own research as well as from the widespread adoption and success of GM crops elsewhere. New research that will focus on Africa’s ‘orphan crops’, food crops like cassava that are not economically important to the global market but important fixtures in ‘back gardens’ of rural Africa, by groups like the African Orphan Crops Consortium, will shield East African farmers from climate change and ultimately improve the diets of Africa’s children.
The only thing standing in the way is politics. Africans must allow science to trump fear and accept the technology that’s improving food production almost everywhere else.
Let’s start with the cassava in Tanzania.
Gilbert Arap Bor grows maize, vegetables and dairy cows on a small-scale farm of 25 acres in Kapseret, near Eldoret, Kenya. He also teaches at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Eldoret campus. Mr. Bor is the 2011 Kleckner Trade & Technology Advancement Award recipient and a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org).