The cassava plant is an essential food staple, providing the base diet for 800 million people in Africa, South America and Asia. Also known as the manioc, tapioca and yucca, it the third largest source of calories for people in the world. Now it is under grave threat. The New York Times reports that the cassava plant is being attacked by the “brown streak” virus, which is leaving the white flesh of the plant streaked with dead brown lumps. 

In Uganda, the brown streak is attacking cassava crops around Lake Victoria. This threatens millions of East Africans who treat the crop as a staple. Claude M. Fauquet is director of cassava research at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis. He calls the virus “explosive and pandemic-style.” As he told the NY Times, “the speed (as which the disease is spreading) is just unprecedented, and the farmers are really desperate.” 

Cassava has been favored as a crop because it is largely self-managing. At the NY Times points out, a farmer who is weak with malaria will know that his crops can survive for a time without tending. It is also extremely drought-tolerant and can be left underground for up to three years during times of crisis. The plant is filling, but is not very nutritious. Farmers must remove trace amounts of cyanide by grinding and fermenting the crops. 

Experts are hopeful that the brown streak can be contained in Africa. However, they are afraid it will cross from the Congo Basin into Nigeria. Donations from various organizations, including the Gates Foundation, the United States Agency for International Development and a Monsanto foundation, have poured $55 million into solving this dilemma, but experts fear that not enough has been done. 

No strain of cassava is currently immune to the virus, so authorities hope that preventative actions can help stem the disease. Currently, the Catholic Relief Society is using the $22 million donated by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to educate farmers to recognize diseased crops. In turn, farmers are taught to burn the diseased crops. They are also given clean cassava cuttings to attempt another harvest.

Other African governments are employing similar fight tactics. In Uganda, the government is setting up minicomputers with software to help educate farmers. They are also encouraging farmers to set up savings clubs by giving everyone a steel cash box and savings tips. Elijah Kajubi is a local initiative agent. As she told the NY Times, she became suspicious of her plants when they were only knee high. “So I planted beans, too,” she said.

For further reading:

Cassava plant at risk in Africa
As a new virus ravages this staple food, experts compare it to the European potato blight of the 1840s.