Cassava a climate change staple—’Rambo of the food crops’

12 March, 2012, Esther Nakkazi

Cassava, a traditional food security staple, could be the best bet for farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa to beat climate change, according to a new study by a team of climate scientists.

The research, published in a special edition of the scientific journal Tropical Plant Biology last week found that cassava could brush off expected temperature rises of up to 2 degrees Celsius in the region by 2030 – and could be even more productive.

Cassava Root

Casavva Root—Rambo of the staple food crops

Cassava is the second most important source of carbohydrate in sub-Saharan Africa consumed by over 500 million people every day- the highest per capita in the world. It is also used in making industrial products like confectionery and animal feeds.

“Cassava is a survivor; it’s like the Rambo of the food crops. It can enhance nutrition and reduce climate risk,” said Andy Jarvis, a climate scientist with the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

Jarvis, also the study lead author, said cassava deals with almost anything the climate throws at it, acting as a failsafe. “It thrives in high temperatures, and if drought hits, it simply shuts down until the rains come again. There’s no other staple out there with this level of toughness.”

Using a combination of 24 climate prediction and crop suitability models, scientists compared the expected impacts of climate change on the production of cassava and other staples potato, maize, bean, banana, millet, and sorghum.[frax09alpha]

They found that by 2030, temperature rises of between 1.2 and 2 degrees Celsius, combined with changes in rainfall patterns, would leave cassava outperforming the other crops overall.

For instance in East Africa, while the suitability of all other crops declined in the study, cassava had a 10 percent increase.

In West Africa, it outperformed the suitability of the potato, bean and banana by between 15-20 percent.

Despite being able to produce its starch-rich roots in poor soils and with little water, making it a reliable crop in difficult environments, investment in cassava research has been dwarfed by decades of research into better-known staples like rice, wheat and maize.

Scientists from the CIAT and the CGIAR’s Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security Research Program (CCAFS) who engaged in the research said there is still room for crop improvement efforts to maximise the potential of cassava.

For example, breeding to improve drought and cold tolerance could support the expansion of cassava production into drier areas of Sub-Saharan Africa, and cooler parts of Southern Africa.

The report also stresses the importance of more research to help make cassava production more resilient to pests and disease outbreaks, such as whitefly, mealy bug, cassava brown-streak disease and cassava mosaic disease, to reduce existing threats and prepare for emerging ones.

“Tackling cassava’s vulnerability to pests and diseases could be the final hurdle to a food secure future for millions of people,” continued Jarvis. “If we’re well prepared for these threats, cassava could be one of the most climate change-resilient crops an African farmer can plant.

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) estimates that total world cassava utilization is projected to reach 275 million tons by 2020. But Africa claims 62 percent of the total world production, making it the largest producer of cassava, with Nigeria leading the world with a 19 percent of the global market share.

“While the other staples will struggle in the face of climate change, it looks as though cassava is going to thoroughly enjoy it,” said Jarvis.

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