Nov 18, 2008

Over 1.5 million in Africa benefit from return of cassava, UN reports

Harvesting healthy cassava

UN News Centre 13 November 2008 –Following years of massive crop losses caused by a devastating virus, the tropical root crop cassava – one of Africa’s principal foodstuffs – has made a comeback and is benefiting some 1.65 million people throughout the Great Lakes region, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported today.

“Having cassava back on the table is of major importance, especially to the region’s most vulnerable, who have been hit hard by this year’s global food crisis,” said Eric Kueneman, Chief of the FAO Crop and Grassland Service.

In response to the epidemic, FAO partnered with the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO), working to distribute virus-free cassava planting material to over 300,000 small farmers in the countries – Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda – struck by the virus.

With each person in Africa consuming around 80 kilograms of cassava per year, Cassava Mosaic Disease (CMD) triggered a crisis which destroyed harvests throughout the region.

In Uganda, the virus has decimated 150,000 hectares of cassava since the early 1990s, with resulting food shortages leading to localized famines in 1993 and 1997.

“It’s sweet, not bitter,” said Ernest Nduwimana, a young farmer who lost his father during Burundi’s brutal civil war, who lives in northern Cibitoke province, the epicentre of the epidemic.

Last year, the area’s fields were barren, but with the crop being good this year, there is enough to feed his family until next year’s harvest, he said.

FAO’s Mr. Kueneman stressed that increasing the production of local crops such as cassava is a pillar of the agency’s response to the current food crisis, which plunged an additional 75 million people into poverty last year alone.

High prices of food and fertilizer are just some of the problems the Great Lakes region faces, as recent outbreaks of violence in eastern DRC demonstrate further instability.

Amid such circumstances, FAO suggests cassava can make a crucial difference, since the crop’s roots can be harvested whenever there is a need or left in the ground when farmers are driven from their land given that thieves find them difficult to dig out from the ground when unattended.

Fighting the Disease began with the development of a series of disease-free cassava varieties by an FAO research partner in Nigeria.

At the same time, the agency also kicked off a campaign to help individual Great Lakes nation, with the support of ECHO, which has contributed over €3 to date, and other donors.

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