African Tuber: A Root Cause of Famine

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African cassava may be an upcoming example of a little bit of history repeating. Harvests of the root are in danger of going the way of Ireland's 19th century potato.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned that the spread of the Cassava Brown Streak Disease may become an epidemic and cause famine, reported the BBC.

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The disease, first discovered in Uganda in 2006, spread to Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The people of these densely populated nations depend on cassava (Manihot esculenta), because it grows easily in poor soils and withstands drought.

A South American native, cassava, also called yuca, is grown by simply planting a section of the stem of a mature plant length-wise in the soil. Unfortunately, easy planting also makes the virus easy to spread.

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"The main ways of controlling are to try and control the movement of planting material. Cassava is propagated from cuttings and if you move a cutting that has the infection you're effectively moving it to a new area," Mike Robson, a plant production and protection officer with the FAO, told the BBC.

The virus has the heart-breaking habit of waiting until late in the season to attack and not showing signs of illness above ground, but only in the large, edible, potato-like roots. A farmer thinks he has a health crop until harvest.

"The other thing that farmers can do if they suspect they have the disease is to harvest early. They will get smaller roots of cassava but they will be less affected by the disease – it shows up late in the production cycle," said Robson.

The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture is currently developing eight varieties of Cassava Brown Streak Disease resistant cassava, reports the BBC, but they won't be widely available for another two years.

IMAGES:

A man walks through cassava fields near the Kopeyia drumming village in Ghana. (Jacob Silberberg, Getty Images)

Cassava roots (David Monniaux, Wikimedia Commons)