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Gates Foundation boosts efforts here to provide life-saving crops for Africa

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 15, 2011 - When Martin Fregene talks to farmers in his native Nigeria, he always tells them about the benefits of the new variety of cassava he is working on.

It never fails to impress his audience.

"They always tell me that if what you are saying is true, you need to give us this crop right away," he said.

Fregene can't do that, but the BioCassava Plus program he heads at the Danforth Plant Science Center on Warson Road has moved a step closer to making that dream a reality. The 13-year-old research facility announced Thursday that it has received an $8.3 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to fund Phase II of the 6-year-old project. It aims to develop a more nutritious, higher-yield staple for populations that suffer from vitamin deficiencies in sub-Saharan Africa. The foundation had already bankrolled $12 million of the initiative.

Fregene said that this latest round of cash came through in December, but the announcement was held by the foundation to coincide with a similar grant to a group enriching golden rice.

According to materials from the center, as many as three-fifths of pre-school youths in Nigeria have depressed levels of vitamin A causing everything from anemia to stunting or wasting of children. Loss of vision is another threat.

"Parents often have to watch their kids go blind or die," Fregene said. "Thirty-nine thousand die every year in Nigeria alone from deficiencies in pro-vitamin A. That's a scandal."

The solution, researchers believe, is cassava. Fregene said it's a food source for 250 million Africans, including 5 million families in Nigeria.

"There is a reason a crop that came across on Portuguese ships 500 years ago from Brazil to Nigeria has become the biggest crop in that country and the country has become the biggest producer of that crop in the world," he said. "To produce an acre of cassava in Nigeria compared to an acre of rice or an acre of corn is much cheaper."

Not only is it cost-effective, it also grows well in poor soils and is heavily drought-resistant.

A Two-pronged Effort

Fregene hopes malnutrition can be prevented by enhancing the crop's nutritional content with pro-vitamin A, protein and iron. He believes the project is about five or six years from completion as it runs through two levels of trials.

"By then we'll have products approved for production by farmers," he said.

Paul Anderson, director of international programs at Danforth, also said the project holds the keys to a brighter future for Nigeria and neighboring nations.

"We focus on cassava because we believe it to be the best food security crop in Africa," he said.

He said the initiative has taken a two-pronged approach. One aspect has focused on boosting the crop yield while another has given it more nutritional value.

"This grant allows us to do that second component, which is improving the quality," he said.

Fregene said the money infusion is a big step.

On Thursday, the Gates Foundation provided the Beacon with an email statement from Susan Byrnes, director of agricultural communications, about the grant.

"We believe one of the most promising ways to address the huge challenge of malnutrition is to boost the vitamins and nutrients of the staple crops that small farmers already eat and grow," Byrnes said. "If farmers choose to grow these new improved crops," she said, "we expect to see not only their health improve, but also a ripple effect that means more prosperous lives."

Thinking back to his conversations with impatient Nigerian farmers, Fregene puts it more simply.

"I tell them it is worth the wait," he said.

David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis. 

David Baugher
David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis who contributed to several stories for the STL Beacon.

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