Date released
17 April 2024

Cassava, a vital cash crop in Laos, underpins food security, animal feed production, and industries such as starch and biofuels. Generating A$350 million annually for smallholder farmers, it ranks as the country's fourth most valuable export. But this success story faces a grim threat: cassava witches broom disease and cassava mosaic disease. 

These two diseases, transmitted through infected stem cuttings, can devastate cassava production, reducing yields by up to 90% and lowering starch content. They are rapidly spreading, devastating cassava production, and could cripple what is a multi-billion-dollar industry across Southeast Asia.

An ACIAR-supported high-tech facility in Laos is now producing disease-free planting material faster than ever and getting it into the hands of farmers across the country. 

Woman using phone to take photos of cassava seedlings in greenhouse
ACIAR project reviewer visited the greenhouse to observe the multiplication of disease-resistant cassava.

Producing more disease-free cassava cuttings faster

The Future Stems Centre was established in 2021 as part of a 5-year, A$4 million project to produce and distribute disease-free cassava planting materials to smallholder farmers in Laos and the region.

The project, which was completed in 2023, was a collaboration supported by ACIAR, partnering with Alliance Bioversity (CIAT) and Laos' National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute (NAFRI).

Distributing clean cassava plants to farmers is one of the most effective strategies for disease control. 

But, traditionally, cassava multiplication was slow, with a single plant producing only 10 stem cuttings per year. As CIAT’s Dr Jonathan Newby, who led the project, explained, ‘This limited approach would take years to reach the millions of hectares under cassava cultivation in Laos and Southeast Asia.’

The Future Stems Centre uses rapid multiplication techniques, and is now producing 125 stem cuttings a year from each plant. 

Production is also more hygienic, reducing the risk of the cuttings becoming contaminated.

It’s a race against time while diseases are spreading. ‘The more we can multiply healthy planting materials, the greater the chance of preventing the spread of diseases,’ said Mrs Soukphathay Simeuang, a tissue-culture technician at NAFRI, who has played a crucial role with her team in achieving the high rates of multiplication. 

The disease-free tissue culture plantlets of several varieties were bred in Vietnam and Thailand by project partners and sent to Mrs Simeuang in Laos for multiplication. Her team’s role was to make sure these plantlets were disease-free and clean for use in the multiplication process. 

Initially hesitant to take part in the project due to her lack of cassava experience, Mrs Simeuang 's dedication grew as she saw the potential to help farmers. 'I want to take the opportunity to help save the lives of smallholder farmers in my country,’ she said. 

Cross-country collaboration is key

The project has fostered a network of cassava experts and researchers across partner countries including Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. This network facilitated the crucial exchange of knowledge and disease-resistant cassava varieties across national borders. 

Additionally, 13 varieties resistant to cassava mosaic disease have been introduced to NAFRI's collection, with 5 now being evaluated by farmers and industries across Laos.

Laos’ relative freedom from cassava mosaic disease presented a strategic opportunity. Dr Newby explained: ‘This situation allowed us to develop disease-free mother plants and distribute them to various locations within Laos and neighbouring countries such as Cambodia. This successfully aided in establishing a clean seed system. The system is critical for preventing diseases, as it is a large-scale multiplication and deployment of disease-free planting material to farmers.’

Building local skills, knowledge and confidence for a resilient region

The project's impact extends beyond facilities and systems. It has strengthened local capacity through the cassava network and empowered researchers such as Mrs Simeuang. 

'We anticipate witnessing the greater impact of this project in providing disease-resistant varieties to rural communities and farmers not only in Laos but also throughout the region', said Mr David Shearer, ACIAR Research Program Manager.

Through ACIAR’s support, NAFRI is now well equipped to combat cassava diseases with cutting-edge research facilities and the enhanced capacity of its local staff. It is now well-positioned to collaborate with government agencies and partners in Laos and the region to develop effective solutions for combating the spread of cassava diseases. 

Dr Chanthakhone Boualaphanh, Deputy Director General of NAFRI, shared her strong belief in the ability of NAFRI staff, especially the women who have been part of the project. 

‘I really appreciate the dedication of both international partners and local staff in adapting to new technologies and acquiring new knowledge throughout these 5 years,’ she said. 

‘The remarkable growth in recent years has deeply inspired me and amplified my confidence in the potential of NAFRI.

'In light of the unpredictable nature of current and emerging disease developments in the world, I strongly advocate for the continuation of this collaboration, which will empower us to remain prepared and resilient to future challenges.’

A large group of people sitting and standing on grass in front of a large sign
With the support of ACIAR, CIAT organised cassava disease diagnostic training in Laos for researchers and cassava experts from ASEAN countries

ACIAR Project: 'Establishing sustainable solutions to cassava diseases in mainland South-East Asia'. (AGB/2018/172)