The Star: Cassava, a starchy root, has fed some of the poorest nations for centuries.
Hundreds of millions of people in Africa depend on it, as do hundreds of millions more in Asia and Latin America. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, cassava accounts for a third of Africans’ total caloric intake. It may soon become even more important: New research suggests it is ideally suited to withstand drought and climate change.
‘Rambo’ of food
Andy Jarvis of the Colombia-based non-profit International Center for Tropical Agriculture, says cassava could be the answer to climate change adaptation in Africa, because cassava is “often the food crop that continues to provide food in periods of the year when other food sources are not available.” Its other selling point? It’s incredibly resistant to adversity, he says. Cassava has been deemed the “Rambo of food crops” by Jarvis and other scientists because cassava isn’t hurt by climate change.
“It is really tough. It originated in some very hot and dry regions in Latin America, and over the years the plant has adapted to droughts and hot spells by just shutting down when the going gets tough,” Jarvis says.
“It is almost like the tropical equivalent of hibernation. If the plant feels drought, or feels too hot, it just stops all activity and waits till the climate gets suitable again.”
Happy in the heat
Jarvis and a team studied what the impacts climate change would have on cassava and six other African food crops (including maize, sorghum, banana and beans) based on forecasts by 2030. In their study published in the journal Tropical Plant Biology, they found cassava survived projected temperature rises of 2 C in Africa by 2030. The other crops were negatively impacted by climate change.
“Anything that the climate throws at it, it seems to deal with. Very few other crops have these levels of resistance to climate constraints, and none of them are as widely cultivated as cassava,” Jarvis says. This means cassava can be a substitution crop in areas where other crops such as maize and sorghum are suffering.
“It can also be grown in areas where there is significant climate risk as a plan B for a farmer,” continues Jarvis. “If all other crops fail because of an expected heat wave or within-season drought period, then at least (the farmer) can rely on the cassava crop producing food for the family.”
Jarvis says that because of its benefits, cassava production should be funded and expanded. Nigeria announced in late July it has plans to import 18 cassava production plants along with 100 rice mills from China, according to Nigeria’s Guardian News. The UN set up the Global Cassava Development Strategy 12 years ago to guarantee its future. Despite its hardiness, cassava can be afflicted by pests and diseases.
“Viruses threaten its usefulness to farmers in many parts of Africa, but the solutions can be found if appropriate funding is made available,” Jarvis says. Jarvis argues that food shortages don’t just affect poor countries, but rather food security affects the world as a whole. “We should be worried about the provision of food in the long term to sustain growing human populations. But solutions exist, and at least in this study we have identified cassava as a key crop for the future.”
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