December 16, 2010 1:19 am

War on crop disease yields a better diet

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Bisunzu Kamunono

Mosaic virus: Bisunzu Kamunono surveys the damage to the roots of his cassava, arguably Africa’s single most important crop

A tropical downpour bathes Bisunzu Kamunono’s field but all is already lost. “Look at it,” the 59-year-old Congolese farmer sighs, brandishing a withered root. “The whole plot has gone bad.”

Mr Kamunono has already fled the armed groups that rampage across the Democratic Republic of Congo eastern region. Now he and the nine children of his household face a different, silent enemy: the dreaded mosaic virus.

The first sign of an attack is a yellow pattern spreading across the leaves of cassava plants, the region’s staple crop. Starved of nutrients, the roots below, which would otherwise be pounded into a stodgy ball that forms the basis of almost every meal, do not grow. Each lost crop worsens a food crisis in a country where, according to UN figures, 69 per cent go hungry, the world’s highest figure.

In Bunyakiri, a region of 150,000 people where Mr Kamunono’s hamlet of Miowy is situated, four in five plots are affected by the mosaic virus, according Action Against Hunger/ACF International, an anti-malnutrition charity and beneficiary of the Financial Times’ seasonal appeal.

But mosaic can be stopped. In a world where almost 1bn people do not have enough to eat, and with population growth projected to outstrip agricultural output, campaigns against crop diseases are progressing well. Over 20 years a co-ordinated vaccination programme has largely eradicated rinderpest, an affliction that laid waste to cattle for millennia. In Africa, cassava – arguably the continent’s single most important crop – fell prey to mealybug until it was countered by an imported South American wasp. Mosaic ran amok until 1977, when Nigerian scientists bred resistant bulbs.

With the twin scourges brought under control, cassava production in sub-Saharan Africa has almost tripled in the 40 years from the early 1960s, according to the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute. The increase is enough to feed 29m people each year.

However, persuading subsistence farmers to take a gamble on a new bulb is not always easy. Since August last year ACF has distributed 618,000 metres of mosaic-resistant bulbs, almost equivalent to the distance from Brussels to Berlin. But only about 10 per cent of the area’s land is planted with them, estimates Jean-Paul Nshombo, assistant head of ACF’s local food security programme.

For his teams, the best way to cajole cultivators into making the switch is to demonstrate that crops can be grown from the new bulbs.

“When they arrived and told us about the new bulbs, I hesitated,” recalls Furaha Faraja, 36. But her crops had been wasted by mosaic as often as three times a year. She had little to lose. Today, dressed in her best outfit – a loud two-piece suit covered with decorations celebrating the 50th anniversary of Congo’s independence from Belgium – she beams as she wrestles a whopping root out of the ground.

Her plot, in the valley where Mr Kamunono also farms, groans with the lush angular leaves of healthy cassava plants.

A bumper crop makes a dramatic difference. The diet of the poorest people in eastern Congo consists mostly of cassava, occasionally garnished with the crop’s leaves. The repast has little nutritional value.

Yet by selling the surplus, Ms Faraja can afford a little variation – a few beans, some fish. As a result, her six children are less likely to join those stricken by malnutrition at the nearby hospital. There is even enough cash left over to cover school fees.

Mr Kamunono, for one, is persuaded of the merits of the new bulbs. “Next year,” he says, ruefully eyeing his neighbour’s heap of chunky roots, “I’m going to plant this.”

Treasure in turmoil

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