Cornell University has announced grants totaling $35 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK's Department for International Development in support of international efforts to deliver improved varieties of cassava to smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.
Cassava is vital to the food security of millions of Africans. But while breeders are making progress in developing disease-resistant varieties that also boost yield and respond to the needs of smallholder farmers and processors, they face significant challenges. During Phase 1 of the Next Generation Cassava Breeding project — which was funded by the Gates Foundation and the UK from 2012 to 2017 — researchers managed to shorten the breeding cycle for new cassava varieties through genetic selection and improved flowering. Much of that genomic information was made publicly available through an open database called Cassavabase, with the goal of making it easier for researchers around the world to compare results and breeding programs and avoid duplication of their efforts.
"This grant funds a second five-year phase that will allow us to build on previous work and focus on getting improved varieties into farmers' fields," said project leader Ronnie Coffman, international plant breeder and director of International Programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell.
To that end, investigators will partner with NextGen collaborators in Ghana, Rwanda, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to create a broader network of researchers focused on improving livelihoods and food security. In Africa, partners include the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture and the National Root Crops Research Institute in Nigeria; the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement in Ghana; the National Crops Resources Research Institute and Makerere University in Uganda; and the Tanzania Agricultural Research Institute in Tanzania. In South America, partners include Embrapa in Brazil and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia. And in the U.S., partners include Cornell, the Boyce Thompson Institute, the University of Hawaii, and Ithaca-based USDA-ARS.
"Our focus for the next five years will be to translate this research into breeding practices to increase impact," said Chiedozie Egesi, NextGen project director and adjunct professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell, who is based at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nigeria. "We have a strong gender component to Phase 2. A key goal will be to identify traits preferred by women farmers and end-users and incorporate them into new cassava lines."
(Photo credit: Cornell University)