An alliance of scientists has been formed to help promote cassava, which has emerged as a "survivor" crop able to thrive in the expected higher temperatures engendered by climate change, a scientific conference in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, heard.
Some 300 scientists attending the second International Scientific Conference of the Global Cassava Partnership for the 21st Century (GCP-21-II) announced the alliance, named the Global Cassava Modelling Consortium, which will offer a platform to world cassava researchers to share research information, better understand the physiology of the plant, and explore avenues for protecting it from attacks now that it has even greater importance for the food security of many regions in the world.
The new consortium will initially establish a loose network of scientists sharing and analysing current cassava research and historical research data. As it grows, the network will include the sharing of experiences with cassava farmers across the Tropics, with farms being treated as experimental stations in their own right.
Andy Jarvis, a climate change scientist at the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and CGIAR’s Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) Research Programme, told the conference that a study published in February in the journal Tropical Plant Biology revealed that temperatures in East and West Africa - two major cassava growing regions - are expected to rise by around 1.8 degrees Celsius by 2030, but that the cassava plant will thrive.
"While this [rising temperature] poses problems for the suitability of food staples like bean, banana and sorghum, cassava suitability is likely to be the exception to the rule... Research shows that it will brush off the higher temperatures," he said. "Its potential is tremendously exciting. But now we have to act promptly on the research, as more pests and diseases are manifesting themselves because of climate change."
Cassava is the second most important source of carbohydrates in sub-Saharan African, after maize, and is eaten by around 500 million people every day, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Globally, 280 million tons are produced every year, with half the supply coming from Africa; Uganda produces 5.4 million tons of cassava every year. It is also grown by millions of smallholder farmers in Southeast Asia and Latin America.
Despite its robust survival in the face of climate change, it has an Achilles heel; it is susceptible to diseases related to global warming like mealy bug, cassava brown-streak disease and cassava mosaic disease.
The cassava study described cassava as "the Rambo root" for its resilience, with authors reporting that the tuber becomes even more productive in hotter temperatures and outperformed potatoes, maize, beans, bananas, millet and sorghum - some of Africa's main food crops - in tests using a combination of 24 climate prediction and crop suitability models.
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The study found that in East Africa cassava could see a 10 percent increase in production if temperatures rise as predicted. In West Africa cassava will hold its own, doing better than potatoes, beans and bananas. Cassava, along with banana and maize, will see a 5 percent increase in suitability in Southern Africa, with only Central Africa registering a I percent decrease in cassava suitability - significantly better than the substantial declines expected in potato and bean, according to Jarvis.
Scientists at the Kampala meeting are also focusing on aspects of cassava breeding - conventional, genetic engineering, the biology of the cassava crop, pests and disease, and nutrition enhancement by moving away from the usual white cassava which is Vitamin A-deficient, a problem in many developing countries. In Uganda for example, Vitamin A and iron deficiencies are major health problems with 32 percent of children under 60 months, and 31 percent of child-bearing mothers, deficient in the vitamin.
"We are planning to introduce nutritious yellow cassava varieties that are rich in Vitamin A and protein," Robert Kawuki, a cassava breeder at a government agro-laboratory facility told IRIN.
Uganda's Minister of State for Agriculture Zerubabel Mijumbi Nyiira told IRIN at the conference venue that the findings would prove useful to farmers in sub-Sahara Africa. "The crop can work as social and economic transformer," he said.
"Cassava used to be a poor person's crop, but now it has the potential of becoming the main food of millions of people while its commercial potential is unimaginable. It is not only for food but it can also be used for industrial starch and used in more than 300 industrial products.
"The world is moving away from using fossil fuel, and therefore fermented cassava starch can produce ethanol used in bio-fuel. But more importantly, its survival in circumstances of this nature makes it one of the most important crops that can make Africa food secure."