A smart revolution: World Congress in Asia

A smart revolution: World Congress in Asia

If you’re on a diet in 2016, restricting your carb intake might be on your list of New Year’s resolutions. But around the world, demand is on the rise for starch and other forms of carbohydrate, as incomes rise and consumer preferences change.

It might seem strange that demand for a starchy root crop would increase with higher incomes. But the multiple applications of cassava in diverse markets have helped it fight its reputation as an economically ‘inferior’ commodity.

The World Congress on Roots and Tuber Crops, to be held in China next week, (January 18th – 22nd) explores exactly the diverse nature of this market. In Asia, cassava is in demand for starch – mostly sweeteners and other products in our modern diets – and dried roots for ethanol or livestock feed.

Self-sufficiency and price support policies for alternative commodities in the region have also favored cassava processing. In recent years, cassava has become a relatively cheap alternative to maize in China – the main export market for cassava products – fueling demand and production expansion in Asia.

But to stay competitive, cassava yields have to keep pace with competing crops, like maize, especially with multiple new challenges on the horizon.

Yet despite receiving a tiny fraction of the billions invested in improving maize productivity in the United States – the world’s biggest maize exporter – cassava starch yields have largely kept pace with maize, with the added advantage of being produced in Asia.

“More investment into cassava’s genetics could unlock hidden potential in an already top performing crop. The cassava genome has been sequenced, but we’re just beginning to use the data as a breeding tool,” said CIAT’s cassava program leader, Clair Hershey.

Cultivating a top performer  

When it first started, CIAT’s cassava program was a response to the plight of poor farmers who benefitted little from the Green Revolution technologies of the 1960s. Cultivating the most marginal upland areas of the tropics, they were caught in a low productivity trap.

New, high-yielding, high-input grains swept Asia, but some required extensive fertilizer and pesticide use or irrigation schemes to ensure that extracted nutrients were replaced in the soil, for example. In some areas, farmers couldn’t afford irrigation or fertilizer use, and so they turned to other crops.

Cassava already grew in Asia, but it attracted little research investment and yields were low. Yet yields were relatively impressive considering the crop was planted with minimal labor and fertilizer investment. It also grew in poor, low-fertile soil where other crops wouldn’t, and was drought-tolerant.

With a vital weapon in their arsenal – the world’s largest collection of cassava landrace varieties or “germplasm” – researchers turned their breeding efforts to genetic discovery and spent decades improving crop yield and management, to provide farmers in Asia with a stepping stone out of poverty.

So, what of the revolution?

Funding was tough; research was slow. Then researchers did for cassava in Asia what smartphones did for mobiles. They took a commodity in demand, revolutionized its efficiency, adapted it to the modern environment and multiplied it for a mass market. Only with a lot less money and probably more sweat.

Fast-forward 50 years and we’re looking at nothing short of a smart revolution.  After decades of evaluating, selecting and exchanging germplasm between CIAT’s genebank in Colombia and national breeding programs across Asia, high-yielding cassava varieties have been multiplied and released.

Fresh root cassava yields in Asia more than doubled. By 2002, Asian breeders had released more than 50 improved varieties in nine countries. Considerable benefits trace back to producers and cassava growers, who are typically smallholder farmers planting on marginal land.

One variety in particular, KU 50, developed at Kasetsart University by Dr Chareinsuk Rojanaridpiched and colleagues in Thailand, took the market by storm. By 2013, aggregate economic benefits from its adoption were estimated at US$44 million in Thailand. Today, KU 50 is the most cultivated cassava variety in the world.

Of course many challenges remain ahead – not only in better understanding cassava’s genetics but in managing a swathe of new pests and diseases threatening its production. All of these require investment. Yet the total cost attributed to KU-50 development in Thailand is around US$21.6 million.

That’s a weighty return on a more lean investment. Exactly what carbs do best.

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