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Sunday, 18 February, 2001, 16:24 GMT
Saving Congo's cassava
Culture incubation room at IITA
High-yield cassava plantlets are being reared in Nigeria
Scientists in Nigeria have drawn up a plan to save the most important food crop in the Democratic Republic of the Congo - cassava - which they say is ravaged by disease and pests.

The predator mite will attack and kill the green mite. It is perfectly safe

IITA scientist Alfred Dixon
The project includes a plan to fly in thousands of predator mites to do battle with cassava green mite, which is threatening to cause famine in the war-ravaged country.

Researchers at the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan say that although cassava is a staple food for about 70% of the Congo's population, yields of the crop have fallen sharply in recent years.

IITA scientist Alfred Dixon indicates diseased cassava
Severe cassava mosaic disease symptom on Congolese cassava
Tens of millions of Congolese eat the leaves and roots of the cassava plant every day, yet scientific evidence suggests the crop is badly affected by disease and pests and that yields are plummeting.

The UN is concerned with the possibility of having to bring in large-scale food aid, even to fertile areas unaffected by the current civil war.

Risk free

Scientists from IITA say they will submit a plan to the UN to send to the Congo not only thousands of samples of high-yield strains of cassava, but also thousands of tiny insects.

Cassava leaves heading for Kinshasa for sail in the markets
Cassava is the staple food for tens of millions of Congolese
The high-yield strains and the predator insects are expected to multiply upon arrival in the Congo and therefore guarantee a more healthy cassava crop.

"It is perfectly safe," said Alfred Dixon, the Sierra Leonean scientist who is in charge of the IITA's disaster relief unit.

"We have tested it in laboratory and field conditions - there is no harmful side effect," he said, because the predator mite is sure to die out when its diet of cassava green mites is exhausted.

Disease resistant crops

In recent years, IITA has performed a similar role in Angola and Sierra Leone, where, as in the Congo, civil war has led to the collapse of agricultural research and government support for farmers.

Newly-arrived plantlets in DR Congo
Homemade humidity chambers allow the plantlets to acclimatise
The internationally-funded body was set up in the 1970s to produce improved-yield or disease-resistant varieties of crops native to the whole of sub-Saharan Africa.

Under the DR Congo plan, the mites will be flown to the country in sealed vials aboard a specially chartered plane and then released in the affected areas, propagating naturally.

The plantlets will be kept in homemade humidity chambers to allow them to get used to local weather conditions before being planted in Congolese Soil.

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