“Breeding Cassava” by Nagib Nassar and Rodomiro Ortiz, in Scientific American, May 2010.
To many Americans, cassava root is a stranger in the produce aisle. But for 800 million people around the world, the starchy tuber (also called manioc, tapioca, and yuca) is the main staple of their diets. Globally, it accounts for more calories consumed than any crop besides rice and wheat. Unfortunately for those who subsist on it, it’s not particularly nutritious, containing little protein, vitamins, or minerals. A new and improved cassava could go a long way toward alleviating malnutrition in the developing world, and that’s just what University of Brasília geneticists Nagib Nassar and Rodomiro Ortiz have set out to create.
Despite such advances, the authors and other cassava researchers have their hands full: The New York Times recently reported that a new and damaging virus is destroying crops around Lake Victoria, and may soon spread across Africa. Scientists will need to develop a resistant variety and distribute it quickly, or widespread food shortages will be on the horizon.