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March 19, 2012

Cassava's climate change benefits provide an opportunity to reduce African maize dependence

by Chido Makunike

The predictions of the likely effects of climate change on agriculture in Africa have been negative, with already yearly increasing evidence that maize cultivation is becoming more difficult. Given the importance of maize as the maize staple food of many Africans, the implications for an already precarious food security may be dire.

But now comes the news that another important but neglected staple starch food, cassava, may actually thrive in the climatic conditions that are predicted for the Africa of the future. 

In tests of various climate change models by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia, cassava did better than potatoes, maize, beans, bananas, millet and sorghum.

Andy Jarvis, the lead author of the report of the research, said, “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’s no other staple out there with this level of toughness.”

African farmers are well acquanted with cassava's toughness, as evidence by its cultivation in even almost desert-like conditions where many other crops struggle to survive. It's secondary role to maize in the diets of many Africans is partly because of its longer preparation times and its even more bland taste.

Yet the slavish dependence on a crop, maize, which all the evidence suggests is no longer as well-suited to cultivation in large parts of Africa as it once was is a grave danger to the continent's food security.

Perhaps the new study's confirmation of cassava's particular resilience to cultivation in harsh climates could be used as a wedge to open a littler wider the door to making the point that Africa needs to put serious and urgent attention into developing alternatives to maize.

African Agriculture   

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