Uganda | St. Louis Public Radio

Uganda

Michael Okello arranges his cassava harvest, untouched by viruses.
File photo | Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

To prove that a new-gene editing technology could be used to alter the cassava plant, scientists in the St. Louis suburbs zeroed in on a gene used to process chlorophyll. Before long, they had petri dishes full of seedlings that were white as chalk.

The plan is to use CRISPR — a cheaper, faster way to genetically modify crops — to grow cassava plants that are resistant to common plant viruses threatening food supplies in East Africa. But regulatory agencies have yet to finalize how they will treat the new crops.

“It’s only really been available for use in plants for three, four years,” said principal investigator Nigel Taylor, of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur. “Right now, it’s an experimental tool.”

A cassava micro plant, grown in a Petri dish, is kept in a Danforth unit similar to a walk-in incubator.
File photo |Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

Researchers at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center say a $10.45 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will allow them to expand a project to develop genetically modified cassava into Nigeria.

The country is the largest cassava producer in the world, and farmers there are watching closely as two plant viruses spread across central Africa. One of them, the brown streak virus, was once confined to coastal regions in southeast Africa. Strains of cassava that are genetically modified to resist the two viruses are undergoing field trials in Uganda and Kenya.

Two women walk home after a day of work at Uganda's National Agricultural Research Organisation in Namulonge.
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

The world’s largest seed companies have their eye trained on Africa’s farming industry. A few, including St. Louis-based Monsanto, see drought-resistant corn as the key to an untapped market.

But some African civil service organizations are wary of the genetically modified seeds Monsanto hopes to introduce.

One way to measure the growing turmoil in South Sudan is by the rapidly expanding refugee influx in neighboring Uganda.

A crowd of refugees press into a food distribution area at Pagirinya Refugee Settlement, one of the newest camps built to accommodate the latest arrivals in northern Uganda, just across the border from South Sudan.

Jonathan Taban, a father of six, explained that he's trying to see when he will receive food rations. He's been skipped twice now for a monthly allotment of grains, and he can't figure out why.

Christine Anyeko, a laborer in Uganda's northern Amuru district, weeds a field of cassava, banana and beans by hand.
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

NAMULONGE, Uganda — Before rows of tall, green bushes, Jude Aleu picks a cassava tuber off the ground and cracks it in half.

That shouldn’t be so easy. Healthy cassava tubers — a staple food crop in the region — can grow as thick as your upper arm. But the root in Aleu’s hands is stunted and gnarled because of a plant virus called brown streak disease. When he breaks it open, the flesh is streaked with brown and yellow, a necrosis that will render the harvest inedible.

“It’s corky,” said Aleu, a cassava safety manager for Uganda’s National Crops Resources Research Institute. “This root you cannot eat. Even animals cannot eat it.” 

A Ugandan farmer holds a cassava root for sale in his stall
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

At the Gulu Main Market in northern Uganda, there’s an entire aisle devoted to cassava vendors.

For Ugandans, the starchy tuber is more than a staple food crop. It helped people survive many years of war. A project led by the Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur to develop genetically modified cassava is undergoing field trials in East Africa.

South Sudanese refugees wait to receive food rations in northen Uganda.
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

Updated 3 p.m., Sept. 28 with Durrie Bouscaren's interview on St. Louis on the Air from Uganda.

Heavy fighting in South Sudan has pushed about 150,000 refugees across the border into Uganda over the past two months. In July, the World Food Programme cut food rations in half for residents of settlement camps who have been in the country for more than a year. 

The toll of the conflict is clear in refugee camps in the Adjumani District, near Uganda's northern border.

Botanist Nigel Taylor checks the stems of cassava plants at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur.
File photo | Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

As botanist Nigel Taylor moves through a greenhouse kept to 90 degrees Fahrenheit and 80 percent humidity, he checks the stems of young, potted cassava plants.

“You can see it there, OK?” Taylor said, pulling one forward. “We’re getting lesions on the stem, this plant’s quite badly infected.”

Call it manioc, tapioca or cassava — this starchy, tropical tuber feeds millions of people around the world. In many parts of East and Central Africa, farmers are experiencing declining yields of cassava due to brown streak virus, a plant disease that can render a crop inedible.

For the past decade, scientists at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur have led a project that tries another tack: genetically modifying cassava plants for disease resistance.

Nun tells the story of African poverty

Aug 12, 2013
Sister Toni Temporiti (center) with women of the village of Kiteredde in Masaka, Uganda. They were celebrating the completion of their farm preparations and the fact that they would soon receive their cows.
Provided Sister Temporiti

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Having to decide which of our children will be able to eat doesn't happen to most Americans on a daily basis. In Africa, that is quite the contrary.

Sister Anotinette "Toni" Temporiti, founder of MicroFinancing Partners in Africa (MPA), a microloan company based in St. Louis, believes it’s time to tell that story.

African diary - Kampala

Jun 25, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 25, 2008 - KAMPALA, Uganda - The road from the airport at Entebbe into Kampala is like those video games that kids play in which they steer the cars wildly along the road until an inevitable crash.

It's a two-lane road, but drivers pretty much ignore the yellow line in the middle. The most aggressive carve out a third lane - in the middle of the other two. It's a game of chicken. If the truck hurtling directly toward you looks like it isn't going to give, you better pull back onto your side of the road.