Forgotten Root

Roy Winkelman/Florida Center for Instructional Technology

Cassava is a staple in many African, Asian and South American diets. Roy Winkelman/Florida Center for Instructional Technology

By Kate Hrdina

DES MOINES, Iowa — The cassava plant has been known to produce 60 to 80 tons of food per acre. In the world of crop productivity, that’s a lot.

During a panel discussion Wednesday on “Setting the Stage: Taking Stock and Looking Ahead,” Claude Fauquet, a researcher with the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture highlighted the potential of cassava root in the world food supply.

Crops such as maize and yams are traditionally cited as crops with potential for drastic increases in yield. Fauquet said that on average, cassava only produces 12 tons per acre, but he has witnessed its 80-ton per acre capability on a farm in Africa.

In places such as Nigeria, the tuber of the plant is ground into flour and mixed with water to make a dough-like food called eba. Cassava cake is popular in the Philippines, and fried cassava is typical of Indonesia.

Although relatively unknown in North America (other than for its contribution to tapioca pudding), cassava claims a spot in 800 million diets worldwide and is the fourth overall source of calories.

“There’s not a voice for this crop,” Fauquet said. “It has been considered a poor man’s crop. We need to turn it into a new product for farmers and consumers.”

Besides its high productivity, cassava is also praised for hardiness. The plant is essentially drought resistant naturally, and farmers can leave the roots in the ground for up to three years. Cassava spoils quickly after harvest, but leaving the roots in the ground preserves the starch content.

Scientists are researching ways to enrich the crop with vitamin A and eradicate its reputation as a nutritionally lacking food source. Others are conducting trials using “asparagus” cassava to see whether it can produce even higher yields.

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