Is cassava the key to tomorrow’s food security?

by Georgina Smith | @georginajsmith | CIAT (International Center for Tropical Agriculture)
Monday, 25 January 2016 22:32 GMT

Farmer Huyen Thi Phuc with a new cassava variety growing in her field. CIAT/Georgina Smith

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As climate change takes hold, cassava may be a huge help in Asia

Huyen Thi Phuc, a small-scale farmer in southern Vietnam, has grown cassava and cashew nuts for 15 years. The cassava, a root crop, brings in more than half her income. She grows it because it doesn’t require heavy labor or fertilizer, and it’s one of the few crops that grow in the poor soil on her farm.

But strong winds, worse in recent years, have blown down the tall-growing cassava varieties she usually plants. So, not long ago, she tried planting new kinds of cassava, developed at the local Hung Loc Research Center, in Dong Nai Province.

“I recently grew two new varieties and my yield doubled,” she said. “The stems do not fall down when it’s windy.”

Huyen Thi Phuc is one of millions of farmers who today can find better, higher-yielding, disease- or climate-resilient cassava varieties as a result of decades of agricultural research.

WHEN DISASTER STRIKES

Cassava is a survivor crop. It can withstand harsh conditions - drought, heat or infertile soils – as agriculture intensifies and populations grow. It is a carbohydrate source for 500 million people globally and a staple in Africa, Asia and South America, which account for 53 percent, 33 percent and 14 percent of global production respectively.

Since the 1990s, agricultural researchers in the region and globally have collaborated to develop highly successful cassava varieties. Take, for example, cassava variety KU 50, now the world’s most cultivated cassava variety

Tapping the diversity of cassava genes in Latin America – including from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture’s gene bank, where the world’s largest cassava collection is kept - researchers evaluated, made many crosses and exchanged genetic material with local breeding programs across the region.

They produced improved varieties with the potential to meet needs in Asia: higher yields, more starch content, improved disease resistance and adaptability to environmental conditions. By 2002, Asian breeders had released more than 50 improved varieties.

Widespread adoption of these cassava types was largely a result of new soil and crop management practices explored together with farmers. That led to rapid yield increases in Asia over the last 15 years. Thailand and Vietnam are now the region’s leading cassava exporters.

Cassava also has other advantages, including a spot in niche markets for low fat and gluten-free products. These present a huge opportunity for small-scale cassava farmers, who are major suppliers to those markets.

PREPARING FOR CLIMATE CHANGE

Yet during a recent week-long World Congress on Root and Tuber Crops in Nanning, China, Claude Fauquet, director of the Global Cassava Partnership for the 21st Century, said investment in breeding climate-resilient cassava varieties – so farmers like Huyen Thi Phuc can access them – is lacking.

“A shift from responding to crisis to anticipating it is needed,” he said. “Nigeria is the perfect place for cassava today. But that doesn’t mean it will be the perfect place for cassava tomorrow. We need more resources for research, to help people living in these areas prepare for what’s going to happen.”

Graham Thiele, director of the CGIAR research programme on roots, tubers and bananas, added that research can provide insight into the dynamics of climatic change and help produce climate models to guide breeding programs as well as investment in new technology.  

With climate change, “we know temperatures will increase,” he said. “But how will this affect processing technology? If it rains more, what does that mean for sun drying technology?” These are the kinds of questions farmers in the poorest places, relying on root and tuber crops for food security, need answered.

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Is cassava the key to tomorrow’s food security?

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