Cassava is a dependable food crop for resource poor farmers in Colombia as it can in grow in harsh conditions – low soil fertility, limited water availability and with minimal inputs. A significant threat to cassava production, is the virus-like frog skin disease (FSD) that stunts root growth. In most infected plants, the symptoms are unobservable, and due to stems that sometimes become slightly enlarged, these stems are often selected for future plantings. To control the disease, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) developed a tissue culture method to reproduce cassava through stem cuttings to create large amounts of quality, disease-free planting material.
CIAT’s method was later configured to suit rural conditions. For example, for culture medium reagents, locally available fertilisers, fruits juices, table sugar and cassava starch were used whilst low-cost tools such as insulin syringes were used as micropipettes. An informal farmer’s seeds production system was also established to distribute the disease free planting material to farmers in Colombia’s Cauca Department, a low-cost tissue culture laboratory located in a rural area and run by trained farmers and their communities.
The project was a large collaboration, with each actor performing a specific role. The Women Farmers Group from Santa Ana community (ASOPROSA) served as the cassava experts; an NGO (Fundación para la Investigación y Desarrollo Agrícola, FIDAR) supported social work and personnel relationships; CIAT provided experts in tissue culture, participatory research methodologies and the management of an in vitro gene bank; and the Cassava Biotechnology Network (CBN), and Participatory Research and Gender Analysis (PRGA) Programmes provided financial support.
To begin the process of developing a laboratory that could be owned and run by farmers, a farmer from the region was selected and trained, followed by farmer-to-farmer trainings. The project reports many technical obstacles as well as challenges in communication between farmers and technicians. However, projects to establish and run farmer laboratories for the purpose of creating healthy cassava planting material through tissue culture has now been scaled up across 5 Colombian departments involving 119 farmers.