The National, Tuesday August 07th, 2012
By JAMES LARAKI
CASSAVA is a crop with vast potential but is not considered as an important staple.
It is less important compared to sweet potato, taro and yam.
But in recent years, the importance of cassava has increased due to it being a hardy drought-resistant crop that can grow and perform well in variable climate and soil conditions. It is a hardy crop and can tolerate events such drought.
It can also give acceptable yield and requires less maintenance.
Its popularity has also increased in the highlands region since the 1997-98 drought.
Unlike its important role as a staple in the dry coastal villages, cassava was generally seen as a pig food in the highlands.
It is sometimes considered as a “poor man’s crop” with lower status to sweet potato; and is usually planted on the fringes of gardens.
Cassava with its advantage over other staples is likely to become more popular, particularly in line with our efforts to prepare for possible effects of climate change.
Studies conducted recently by the Colombia-based International Centre for Tropical Agriculture and the Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security Research Programme have found the root to become even more productive in hotter temperatures, growing in poor soil and without water.
The study also found that cassava also outperformed potatoes, maize, beans, bananas, millet and sorghum in tests using a combination of 24 climate prediction and crop suitability models.
This has led to scientists to believe that cassava is “the Rambo of food crops”, and could be the best bet for farmers threatened by climate change.
“Cassava is a survivor; it is like the Rambo of the food crops,” climate scientist Andy Jarvis says.
“It deals with almost anything the climate throws at it. It thrives in high temperatures, and if drought hits it simply shuts down until the rains come again.
“There is no other staple out there with this level of toughness.”
Cassava originates from South America where it is called yuca and has been used since prehistoric times. It is eaten in the same way as other staples; boiled or fried.
It also has potential for downstream processing and value addition.
Jarvis and his team are hoping that their findings would push the scientific community to focus on the root.
Cassava research has been dwarfed over the decades by greater research into better-known staples.
Breeding to improve drought and cold tolerance could support the expansion of cassava production and look into how the crop could be utilised, especially through downstream processing and value addition.
More research could also help make cassava more resilient to pests and diseases.
Scientists are convinced that tackling cassava’s vulnerability to pests and diseases could be the final hurdle to a food-secure future for millions of people. They believe that if we can overcome these threats, cassava could be one of the most climate change-resilient crops farmers can plant.
The National Agricultural Research Institute (NARI) has identified and selected a number of varieties for both the lowlands and highlands.
NARI has recommended four varieties for lowlands and five varieties for the highlands. This was done through the post-drought survey carried out in 1999, where existing varieties were collected for further evaluation.
The selection of the recommended varieties was done based on marketability, yield and cyanide content. The recommended varieties have acceptable cyanide levels, most of which is destroyed in harvest treatments and cooking.
Cassava is a drought-tolerant crop and NARI is encouraging farmers to plant these recommended varieties at all times to ensure there is food available should a drought occur.
Cassava can survive prolonged dry periods of up to three months and can recover quickly to produce edible roots soon after the drought.
As part of its drought preparedness project, NARI is also encouraging farmers to cultivate other drought tolerant crops such as cooking bananas (kalapua and yawa) and sweet potato.
NARI is encouraging farmers to cultivate more than one staple crop where possible, in case some crops may fail.
Cassava can be grown all year round and the excess tubers can be processed into various products that can be store better than fresh tubers.
NARI is encouraging farmers to increase planting of the cassava in drier parts of available land during pre-drought, although it is better to be included among other crops in gardens all season.
For further information and to collect cuttings of the recommended varieties, contact the research and development coordinators of the respective NARI regional centres – highlands (Aiyura) on telephone 537 3500 ([email protected]), Momase – Bubia on 475 1033 ([email protected]) and Southern – Laloki on 328 1015 ([email protected]).