Cassava is an important staple in sub Saharan Africa and provides daily calories for about 500 million. It is a generally hardy crop that thrives in marginal environments where other crops may fail due to drought, poor soils or other abiotic stresses making it a premium food security crop. Cassava is fraught with myriads of diseases chief of which are cassava mosaic disease (CMD) and cassava brown streak disease (CBSD), both viral diseases. CBSD is a huge threat to the entire cassava growing African nations because there is limited or in some cases no known sources of resistance in the cassava germplasm. It is spreading like wild fire from its hotspot zones of eastern Africa to central Africa and a debut in West Africa will pose a phenomenal disaster for West Africa especially in countries like Nigeria and Ghana where it is a major food. There are other important diseases like cassava bacterial blight (CBB) and pests such as cassava green mites (CGM) among others.
The Next Generation Cassava Breeding (NEXTGEN Cassava) project aims to significantly increase the rate of genetic improvement in cassava breeding.The project aims to test a new breeding method known as Genomic Selection that relies on statistical modeling to predict cassava performance before field-testing. Cornell University researchers has partnered with other scientists at cassava breeding programs at NaCRRI; the National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI) and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), both in Nigeria; as well as the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) for Plant Research and the US Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute (DOE-JGI) of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, both in the U.S. NEXTGEN Cassava is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which donated $25 million, and the UK Department for International Development.
Chiedozie Egesi is an assistant director and head of the cassava breeding team at the National Root Crops Research Institute, Umudike, Nigeria. He has led efforts at developing and releasing to Nigerian cassava farmers several improved varieties of cassava including pro-vitamin A cassava. His research activities involve the use of cross-cutting biotechnology tools in the genetic improvement of cassava including transgenic technologies. Chiedozie supports several African NARS cassava breeding programs in developing adaptive breeding schemes. He has worked previously as a university teacher and a yam breeder and have participated in the development and release of 6 yam varieties. The following is an interview he did for the magazine.
What is the importance of cassava on the African continent and the globe as a whole?
Cassava is the African crop par excellence in terms of the number of people who depend on it daily for food and livelihood. Its advantages include the ability to store the roots in-ground for up to 2 or more years enables piece meal harvesting. Even though it contains cyanogen compounds these can easily be removed as the roots are processed into ready to eat forms. The cyangogenic compounds in turn protect it against animal attack. It is also an important raw material for starch and flour. It is excellent in the starch and flour yield per unit area surpassing most carbohydrate sources. It is also has potential use in biofuels.
What is open data?
Open data is the state of making all data freely available for use by any interested member of the public without restrictions. This is an adherence to what is called the Toronto Agreement on prepublication data release to foster transparent and accessible data sharing for the good of the public. It is important that the huge datasets being generated by the use of modern technologies in science are put together in standardized formats for unrestricted access by all who are interested.
What is the significance of data within the agricultural sector?
Scientists and policy or development workers make decisions daily based on available data. The quantum of information being generated in recent times will enable agricultural scientists make better decisions that will in turn benefit millions of people going hungry daily. Open data for agriculture will increase agricultural efficiency globally.
What implications would open data have on Africa?
Open data for Africa means that African scientists will have access to Agricultural data generated by the developed countries. These data should be stored in databases that are easy to use, access, and with tools that will enable their utility in developing countries.
What challenges does this initiative face?
Challenges for the use of open data in crop improvement will include the ability to manage the huge data sets that are now available and how to make use of them to the benefit of mankind. Digitized agriculture should be the way forward in enabling higher precision research with most likelihood of success.