R&D targets starch giver cassava

Related tags Cassava Starch

Funds will pour into research to improve scientists understanding
and bring health benefits to cassava, the starch and tapioca common
food crop.

Ohio State University in the US will lead the $7.5 million, eleven institution project that will work on developing new types of cassava plants that have increased levels of zinc, iron, protein and vitamins A and E.

The staple food for over 500 million people, cassava is a good commercial cash crop and a major source of food security, currently supplying about 7.5 per cent of the world starch.

Grown in tropical and subtropical areas of the world, notably Asia and southern Africa, cassava is cultivated for its starchy, tuberous roots that can be processed into tapioca, ground to produce manioc or cassava meal (Brazilian arrowroot), used as animal fodder or cooked and eaten as a vegetable.

But there are downsides to cassava - its roots are low in protein and also deficient in several micronutrients, such as iron, zinc and vitamin A.

And once the roots are harvested, certain strains of cassava can produce potentially toxic levels of cyanogens - substances that induce poisonous cyanide production.

"In Africa , improperly processed cassava is a major problem,"​ says Richard Sayre​, the project leader and a professor of plant cellular and molecular biology at Ohio State.

"It's associated with a number of cyanide-related health disorders, particularly among people who are already malnourished."

Sayre's laboratory focuses on ways to decrease or eliminate cyanogens in cassava roots.

Through the BioCassava Plus project, he will work with other experts to increase the root's nutritional value, its shelf life once harvested (cassava roots deteriorate in about two days unless they are properly processed after harvesting) and its resistance to geminivirus, a particularly devastating plant virus that can destroy up to 60 per cent of a cassava crop.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that international trade in aggregate dry cassava products - notably tapioca - underwent a sharp contraction in 2002, falling by 19 per cent to just under 6 million tonnes (in cassava pellet equivalent).

Despite a slight increase in the volume traded in the form of flour and starch, which stood at 2.6 million tonnes (1.3 million tonnes in product weight), trade in chips and pellets fell by 33 per cent to 4.5 million tonnes.

Much of the contraction in global cassava trade was concentrated in the EU, for years the major destination of cassava shipments, which it principally imported from Thailand - the world's leading exporter - in the form of pellets for the feed industry under a low tariff rate preferential quota.

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