You may never have heard of it before. A globetrotting crop by all accounts, it’s thought to have been introduced into Southeast Asia in the Philippines from Mexico in the 19th Century.
As our diet becomes ever more complex, cassava – or tapioca – a root crop like sweet potato originally from South America, has been transformed far from its center of origin and today in Asia, can be found in everything from noodles to sweeteners, street food snacks, industrial products, pharmaceutical products, even biofuel.
The crop is the third largest source of calories after rice and maize in the region and supports an estimated 40 million people in Southeast Asia, underpinning a US$5 billion market in starch, chips and other cassava products.
It’s also supplying an increasingly diverse and lucrative market. Asia is now the world’s largest trader of cassava and cassava products. Global demand in the carbohydrate market for cassava is on the rise, driving a billion-dollar industry – and better incomes for farmers.
When disaster strikes
Yet food security agenda in Asia-Pacific remains dominated by grain crops, rice and wheat, despite the fact that cassava – and other root and tuber crops like potato, sweetpotato – is a staple food for poor farming households, especially among ethnic minorities.
Root and tuber crops play an increasing important role as a source of income, both in urban fresh markets and from processing in food and non-food industries, enabling families to buy other sources of food. Farmers, especially in mountainous areas, cultivate cassava on their small plots of land. It brings a good income, and grows well despite low rainfall, poor soil fertility and rising temperatures and can be an important survival crop during extreme weather events such as typhoons, when cassava can be sold for emergency cash.
Our data suggests a devastating impact on Southeast Asian cassava production. It’s vital that we act now to control these threats to safeguard food security, farmer welfare and the long-term sustainability of livelihoods and rural industries.Kris Wyckhuys
Yet many challenges to cassava production and threats to farmer incomes and livelihoods remain. A new study published by CIAT and partners reveals how climate change, among other factors, is driving alarming outbreaks of pests and disease.
Outreach and spreading the word
Efforts to secure financial and technical support to roll-out biological control response programs throughout the region, including equipment for diagnosis, detection and quarantine of emerging threats, are ongoing.
In addition, training courses to equip regional research communities with new knowledge about invading threats, some of which are currently unknown even within the scientific community, have been rolled out throughout Southeast Asia.
Farmer-to-farmer videos have also been developed and rolled out in Southeast Asia, for example teaching farmers better agronomic practices coinciding with the International Year of Soils. The multi-language DVDs, supported by the Swiss Development Cooperation, were rolled out at key events during 2015, for example during the launch of the Climate-Smart Village activities in Northern Vietnam.
Breeding for the future
Opportunities for both women and men to gain from root and tuber value chains, particularly the cassava value chain, could be better understood, and CIAT and partners are paving the way to investigate how poorer smallholder farmers can benefit most. The FoodSTART+ initiative, part of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas, launched earlier this year, is one such example.
CIAT’s work in Asia on cassava spans decades to improve food security in the region. Most recently, at the week-long World Congress on Root and Tuber Crops in Nanning, China in January this year, Dr. Chareinsuk Rojanaridpiched and Dr. Reinhardt Howeler, two scientists with a long history of collaboration with CIAT, received the Golden Cassava Award.
The honor recognized key contributions towards breeding and soil management efforts, which resulted in development of the world’s most widely grown cassava variety, and wider adoption of new varieties by farmers across Southeast Asia. CIAT is today spearheading the new Asian Cassava Breeders Network (ACB-Net) to build on decades of breeding success.