ROME, 5 November, 2002 -- Thirty of the world's leading experts in cassava research have established the Global Partnership for Cassava Genetic Improvement, a new partnership to promote and coordinate global investment in the genetic improvement of cassava, an important source of nutrition in tropical countries, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) announced today. "This new partnership is a very positive development, reflecting the urgent need to support the genetic improvement of cassava to help millions of the world's hungriest people," said FAO Assistant Director-General Louise O. Fresco.

The tropical root crop cassava is the third most important source of calories in the tropics, after rice and corn. According to FAO, more than 600 million people depend on the cassava in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Cassava is grown by poor farmers, many of them women, often on marginal land. For these people, the crop is vital for both food security and income generation.

Despite the importance of cassava in the fight against hunger, FAO says that investment in research to improve the tropical root crop has lagged far behind that of other basic food crops. This has resulted in only minor increases in cassava productivity over the past 30 years -- less than 1 percent annually compared to 2-5 percent in rice, wheat, and corn. In Africa, average cassava yield is 8 tonnes per hectare compared to potential yields of over 80 tonnes per hectare. Bacterial and viral diseases, insect pests, weeds, and drought have all combined to limit cassava production. Attempts by farmers to market their cassava products have also fallen well short of their potential, because of rapid post-harvest deterioration and inadequate starch and protein content in the roots.

Conventional breeding efforts have attempted to address many of the constraints facing cassava productivity, but with limited success. Progress has been slow, because of the crop's complex genetic makeup, which makes it difficult to breed efficiently.

FAO says that new tools such as advanced molecular biology and biotechnology can change this situation by offering new approaches to cassava improvement. New technologies have the potential to make cassava much more productive, nutritious, and profitable to grow, according to the UN food agency.

"The Global Partnership for Cassava Genetic Improvement will develop and use advanced biotechnologies such as genomics to create cassava planting materials that incorporate desired traits, including: enhanced resistance to pests and disease, modified starch quality for better marketability and enhanced levels of protein and micro-nutrients that will make the crop more nutritious," said Eric Kueneman, Chief of FAO's Crop and Grassland Service.

IFAD representative Douglas Wholey, Technical Advisor, Agronomy, expressed his satisfaction of the outcome of the meeting, saying, "The Partnership for cassava improvement will form an important pillar to the Global Cassava Development Strategy, which was initiated by IFAD some five years ago and is now hosted by FAO."

Cassava Breeder Alfred Dixon of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture said: "Cassava is the most reliable source of food for subsistence farmers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, but it is also an important industrial and cash crop that can promote rural development. The technologies being promoted by this Partnership will allow breeders like me to more rapidly improve cassava's value and performance in the field."

The participating institutions have agreed to coordinate their research efforts, share findings, incorporate the views of farmers into the planning process, respect safety regulations in research, and strive to build scientific capacity in national institutions in cassava-growing countries.

"For the first time, the potential exists to efficiently identify beneficial traits in wild and domesticated cassava plants and then transferthese traits to farmer-preferred cassava varieties, in a predictable and timely manner. If successful, these improvements in cassava will change hundreds of millions of lives," said Dr. Claude Fauquet of the Danforth Center.

According to Dr. Wilhelm Gruissem of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology: "Now that wehave apartnership and a plan, the next challenge will be to raise funds for specific collaborative research projects that will allow us to develop and use these technologies to make cassava a more productive and nutritious crop, particularly for the poor."

The Global Partnership for Cassava Genetic Improvement was conceived at a meeting of thirty of the world's leading experts in cassava research held at the Rockefeller Foundation Conference Center in Italy in early October.

Founding Institutions: Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD); The Rockefeller Center; International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT); International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA); Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa); Donald Danforth Plant Science Center (ILTAB); Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH); National Agricultural Research Organization, Uganda; Central Tuber Crops Research Institute, India; International Atomic Energy Agency (FAO/IAEA Joint Division); National Biotechnology Development Agency, Nigeria, Research Institute for Legumes and Tuber Crops, Indonesia; University of Bath, U.K.; Root and Tuber Improvement Programme, Ghana.