Cassava could prove to be Africa’s ticket to food security under a changing climate

Cassava could prove to drive hunger away in midst of climate change in Africa. Photo: International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) Photo Library

by Cecilia Schubert

Cassava has long been understood as being one of the most resilient crops in the tropics, surviving in a challenging environment that is both hot and dry. Impressive as this is, new research from  the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) points to cassava actually thriving in a warmer climate, making it the “Rambo of food crops”. The newly released research results have been published in a special edition of the scientific journal Tropical Plant Biology where it concludes that the cassava root will come to brush off the expected temperature rises of up to 2 degrees Celsius in Africa by 2030 and could even prove to be more productive thanks to the warming climate. Seeing that it very seldom happens, climate change could prove to bring something positive to the region for a change.

Today, cassava stands as the second most important source of carbohydrate in Africa with 500 million consuming it everyday. For many, cassava is vital for both food security and income generation.  Despite its growing importance in the tropics, investments in cassava research has been dwarfed by a prioritization of research into better-known staples like rice, wheat and maize. This has contributed to an uneven cultivation and processing methods and cassava products that often are of poor quality.

How cassava will perform in different parts of Africa

Scientists, with CCAFS Theme Leader Andy Jarvis in the forefront, compared the expected impacts of climate change on the production of cassava and six other key staple crops in sub-Saharan Africa – potato, maize, bean, banana, millet, and sorghum. They found that by 2030, temperature rises of between 1.2 and 2 degrees Celsius, combined with changes in rainfall patterns, will leave cassava in a class of its own, outperforming the other crops overall. In East Africa, for example, it bucks the trend of declining suitability of all other crops in the study, with a 10% increase. In West Africa cassava will hold its ground, significantly outperforming the suitability of potato (-15%), bean (-20%) and banana (-13%). Cassava, along with banana and maize, will see a 5% increase in suitability in Southern Africa, with only Central Africa registering decrease (–1%) –significantly better than the substantial declines expected in potato and bean.

Seeing that cassava might be toughest crop on the block, Andy Jarvis concludes that it “i 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”. More research is however needed, especially since it has been neglected over the years. More thorough understanding of the crop can make it even more resilient and importantly could help cassava survive pest and disease outbreaks. Dealing with the vulnerable side of cassava could in fact make it one of the most climate change-resilient crops on the market and the best way forward for African smallholder farmers to ensure food security in the region.

Some smallholder farmers are realising the potential of cassava

Smallholder farmers in Africa have already understood that cassava is the way forward for them, despite its low status. Emily Marigu Ireri has been growing cassava for six months now and the crop is doing really well on her plot of land. She hopes that eventually the crop will help fend off hunger and boost her income.

Listen to Emily tell her story:



For more information about the research results, read the full report here. You can also read more about Andy Jarvis’ research under CCAFS theme ‘Adaptation to Progressive climate change’.

Read media articles about this research:

'Rambo root' offers climate change hope to African farmers - Guardian

Cassava 'offers climate change hope' for Africa - BBC News

Story by Cecilia Schubert, CCAFS Communications Assistant.