Annual Report 2018 | Identifying priorities for a global cassava research program
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Identifying priorities for a global cassava research program

Identifying priorities for a global cassava research program

Arega D. Alene (IITA-Malawi), Tahirou Abdoulaye (IITA-Ibadan), Victor Manyong (IITA-Tanzania)

International cassava improvement research at IITA was initiated in the early 1970s with a focus on developing high-yielding varieties with resistance to major pests and diseases. In addition to breeding for high yield and resistance to major pests and diseases, cassava research involved developing biological control and integrated pest management options to reduce losses due to insect pests. The development of improved varieties and their delivery to national programs for testing under specific local conditions during the late 1970s and 1980s has led to the successful release of hundreds of high-yielding and disease-resistant varieties for adoption by farmers. The new varieties combine enhanced cassava mosaic disease (CMD) tolerance with preferred postharvest characteristics, wider agroecological adaptation, and 50-100% higher yields even without the use of fertilizer.

It is widely recognized that raising agricultural production to the levels needed to feed an increasing world population requires bigger public investments in research and development and widespread adoption of new technologies. Funding for national and international agricultural research, however, has declined in recent years. In this situation, priority setting has become increasingly important for allocating scarce research resources among competing needs to achieve greater impacts.

Systematic priority assessment has been conducted recently by combining scientists’ views on the potential for addressing particular constraints through research and technology options with an economic assessment of the benefits that could arise from adoption of those technologies. Following its official launch in 2012, the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) embarked on a strategic assessment of research priorities for banana, cassava, potato, sweet potato, and yam using partial equilibrium economic surplus models and poverty impact simulations. As part of this larger RTB effort, IITA led the priority assessment for global cassava research program based on the potential economic and poverty reduction impacts of cassava research and technology options.

RTB priority assessment process

RTB used a systematic priority assessment procedure to identify where and how to focus the program’s resources with a view to achieving the highest possible impacts on food security and poverty reduction. Scientists and stakeholders from across the global RTB community were engaged in a dialogue to increase the relevance and impacts of RTB research. This involved a dynamic, systematic and transparent approach that included periodic revision and updating of research priorities involving six major steps. The steps are not necessarily consecutive, but complement one another to define RTB priorities in a way that incorporates the most current data and information and engages a wide array of stakeholders from the global RTB community.

The six-step process comprises the following: (1) Mapping of agroecological zones, crop production, poverty and food security indicators in to identify target areas where research is most needed; (2) Analysis of the key production constraints; (3) Identification of the most promising research options to address those constraints; (4) Quantification of impact model parameters; (5) Estimation of expected impacts under different adoption scenarios; and (6) Communication of results to stakeholders and the general public.

What are the priority areas of cassava research?

Assessing research priorities based on potential impacts of alternative lines of research is critical for resource allocation efforts aimed at enhancing the impact of agricultural research in the face of declining public research budgets. The results of the priority assessment under the conservative scenario for expected technology adoption (Table 1) show that each of the cassava research options and technologies generates large economic benefits and rates of return on investment. However, there is considerable variation in potential economic benefits, rates of return on investment, and poverty reduction across research options.

The estimated potential impacts on poverty reduction range from some 100,000 people for cold weather and frost tolerance research and 220,000 people for research on prevention of introduction of exotic pests and diseases to over 2 million people for both efficient planting material production and distribution system and sustainable crop and soil fertility management practices. Sustainable crop and soil fertility management practices and efficient planting material production and distribution systems also have the highest rates of return on investment. The results show that an integrated approach involving sustainable crop and soil fertility management practices and an efficient planting material production and distribution system would greatly reduce poverty among the poor cassava-growing households.

Potential economic and poverty impacts of cassava research options.

Overall, improving the quality and supply of cassava planting material and promoting integrated crop and soil fertility management options have the largest potential economic and poverty reduction impacts. Efficient planting material production and distribution systems can go a long way in addressing the observed low adoption of improved varieties due to lack of clean planting materials. Indeed, the lack of an efficient multiplication and distribution system for planting materials is a major constraint to cassava production. As such, the research option addressing this constraint can have very high returns on investment. There is huge potential for a cassava-planting material system that promotes large-scale adoption of improved varieties.

Research in this area aims to improve quality and access to cassava planting material through rapid multiplication and mass propagation methods, alternatives for micro-stakes from disease-free stocks and on-farm management of planting material, and decentralized multiplication with improved management practices (i.e., capacity building for farmers to produce their own high-quality, clean planting material). Similarly, sustainable crop and soil fertility management practices play a key role in closing the observed yield gaps, especially in Africa. Clearly, research options that lead to greater technology adoption and increased root yields should have greater economic and poverty reduction impacts.