In Southeast Asia (SEA) cassava is both a food crop and an industrial crop. This gives the plant, which is used for its roots, the distinction of being both a key to food security and a source of income to the two million smallholder farmers who produce it across the region. At the beginning of the cassava boom of the early 1990s SEA has enjoyed the luxury of not having any serious biological constraints on cassava production. That changed in the early 2010s.
The first major invasive biological constraint to arrive in Asia was the cassava mealybug, which causes significant losses. The Thai Tapioca Development Institute (TTDI), in collaboration with Kasetsart University, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) deployed a parasitic wasp, Apoanagyrus lopezi, as a biocontrol agent with successful results.
Unfortunately, a second disease arrived in the region, first reported in 2015. Cassava mosaic disease (CMD), which can greatly reduce yields by the size of the plant’s root, which had previously caused severe losses in India and Sri Lanka, is putting the livelihoods of SEA cassava producers at risk.
Along with the support of numerous partners across the region, CIAT has put together and ambitious research project titled “Establishing sustainable solutions to cassava diseases in mainland Southeast Asia”. This project was commissioned by the Australian Center for International Agriculture Research (ACIAR) for four years with a total investment of AUD4 million.
“The outbreak of CMD is threatening the livelihood of people who, over the last 10 to 20 years, have escaped poverty because of the good income they earn from cassava,” said Eric Huttner, the Research Program Manager at ACIAR. “Addressing the threat is really important.”
Cassava producers in SEA long faced problems caused by mealybug and cassava witches’ broom disease (CWBD), which is slowly becoming more widespread and can potentially reduce yields by as much as 90 percent. While mealybug was successfully controlled, CWBD is still under research with many unanswered questions.
CMD was first detected in Cambodia and is now found in some 40 provinces in three countries, including Lao and Vietnam. To learn more about the disease and joint efforts to understand and control its spread, read this explainer. CIAT and partners recently published a regional emergency control plan for CMD.
The goal of the new project is to enhance the resilience of cassava production systems by quickly addressing the evolution of the disease. This will help improve the livelihoods of cassava-dependent smallholders and bolster economic development in mainland Southeast Asia. Researchers aim to do work on genetics improvement for resistance, disease diagnostic and surveillance, agronomy and the seed system for cassava, as well as propose inclusive policies that can help safeguard rural livelihoods.
The project was announced in September in Vientiane, Lao PDR, during a project inception meeting that included participants from the private sector – such as companies that produce starch and biofuel made from cassava. Researchers from various government and non-government organizations participated as well.
CIAT’s global Cassava Program of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture has been operating in SEA since 1983 aiming at unlocking new markets for cassava growers by implementing its research strategy through six research and services areas. CIAT’s Luis Augusto Becerra Leader is the leader of the research program. Overcoming emerging biological constraints is critical to the bright future that we see for cassava. Many of the attractive traits of cassava in the food ingredient market are yet to be fully tapped. However, ensuring productivity of the crop in the face of new threats is essential for this vision to be realized.
The project will mobilize the energy and skills of many partner organizations across six Southeast Asian countries. In addition to CIAT, partners include the University of Queensland; Hung Loc Research Agricultural Research Center (HLARC), the Agricultural Genetics Institute (AGI), and the Plant Protection Research Institute (PPRI) from Vietnam; the National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute (NAFRI) and the Department of Agriculture and Plant Protection Centre (DOA-PPC) in Laos; the General Directorate of Agriculture (GDA) in Cambodia; the Department of Agricultural Research (DAR) in Myanmar. Thai Tapioca Development Institute (TTDI), Kasetsart University, and the Chinese Academy of Tropical Agricultural Sciences (CATAS) are also contributing the project implementation.
In addition, addressing cassava disease in Asia is one of the highest priorities of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers & Bananas (RTB). The new bilateral project supported by ACIAR provides much needed support to research activities that map across four of the five RTB Flagship programs. The partnership between ACIAR and RTB allows the project to both contribute to and draw on global research efforts, the existing scientific knowledge and experiences, as well as tap in to global capacity for tackling diseases in vegetatively propagated crops.
“Working together with partners, we are strongly committed to taking action to benefit smallholder farmers and industry in Southeast Asia. We are thankful to all national programs for their collaboration at regional level,” said Jonathan Newby the Asia coordinator for the CIAT cassava program and project Principal Investigator.
Outputs of the project will include:
Commercially competitive and acceptable new cassava varieties resistant to CMD and high yielding.
Source of resistance to CWBD identified and introduced into cassava breeding programs from the existing 6300 cassava landraces held at CIAT.
Enhanced regional diagnostic protocols, tools and information platforms for monitoring, surveillance and certification applications.
Models for the development of economically sustainable cassava seed systems for the rapid dissemination of new varieties and disease-free planting material.
Business models, policy recommendations and alternative funding models for sustainability of interventions.