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How the Gates Foundation Is Making Cassava the Next Corn

Sophisticated plant breeding techniques (but no GMOs) and lots of money are aimed at improving this staple crop of the tropics

A farmer in Sierra Leone holding cassava roots (Karen Kasmauski/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

You may know cassava as the tapioca thickener in your pie or the bubbles in your tea, but for millions of people worldwide it is a staple food. The starchy root can be fermented, boiled, deep fried, dried, pounded into a flour and put through other simple (but time consuming) processes to break down traces of cyanide in the raw vegetable. But the plant is easy to cultivate, survives through drought and stores well. Cassava’s importance in much of the world has earned it the moniker "bread of the tropics." 

It is also, according to Bill Gates, "the world’s most interesting vegetable." But unlike the corn, wheat and rice the more developed, higher latitude world is familiar with, cassava hasn’t benefited from breeding efforts by research and industry. Gates would like to change that. 

So the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has brought its considerable resources to the table with the intent of giving cassava the same superstar crop treatment and attention that corn has received. The foundation is just the biggest player in the new cassava revolution.

But although some may be wary of the foundations goals (if so, they may want to watch dinosaurs defend the Gates Foundation’s work over at Grist), cassava’s genetic makeover is GMO-free. 

To explain how this is possible, Gates goes into the basics of traditional plant breeding on his blog

Suppose you want a variety of corn with a natural resistance to a certain pest. You start by planting as much corn as you can. You wait 8 to 12 weeks for it to grow, and then you take pollen from some of the plants that aren’t infested and use it to pollinate others. If the offspring of those plants is pest-resistant, you’re in luck—your plant won the genetic lottery. If not, you have to start over. Because you’re limited by the growing season, the process can take seven to ten years.

But now researchers are rapidly sequencing the DNA of thousands of plants, figuring out what all those genes do for the plant’s height, color and other traits and then using a computer model to plan out which two plants deserve to be bred together. "Think of it as a highly sophisticated Match.com for plants," Gates writes.

Ed Buckler at Cornell University delves into the details of this process, which he calls "regulating plant sex," and how it could help cassava as well as the people who eat it in a video produced by the Gates Foundation:

Researchers in Ghana, Uganda and other African countries are also working with the foundation to direct the research toward what will help their countries the most. It really is a new way to do plant breeding.

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