Little wonder, therefore, that cassava is usually grown by poor farmers in marginal areas - and even there, it faces increasing competition as cereals are further improved to adapt them to local conditions. In fact, far less research and development has been devoted to cassava than to rice, maize and wheat. This lack of scientific interest has contributed to highly uneven cultivation and processing methods, and cassava products that often are of poor quality.
A new initiative launched in Rome in April seeks to change all that. At a forum at FAO headquarters, some 80 agricultural experts from 22 countries were asked whether cassava had the potential not only to meet the food security needs of the estimated 500 million farmers who grow it, but to provide a key to rural industrial development and higher incomes for producers, processors and traders.
Production, trade are increasing. The consensus was positive. A study prepared for the forum showed that, at global level, Thailand has already placed cassava firmly on the trade map, with its cassava pellets now a common ingredient in Europe's animal feed. Production for domestic markets is also increasing. The world's cassava output was more than 160 millions tonnes last year, and could reach nearly 210 million tonnes by 2005. In the 1961-95 period, production for human consumption rose by 50% in Africa and 70% in Asia, which also leads in production of cassava-derived starches. Use of cassava roots and leaves as animal feed exceeds two million tonnes a year in Latin America, with Brazil using at least half of its production in swine, poultry and fish farming production.
Cassava facts A native of Brazil, cassava is grown in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. It has long been used as a food security crop, producing dependable yields in places where cereals do not grow. The world average yield is about 10 tonnes per hectare,
but can reach 40 t/ha.
But how? The forum's answer was the Global Cassava Development Strategy, drafted through a series of consultations with cassava "stakeholders" - including international agencies, NGOs, farmer organizations, national institutions and the private sector - and designed to make cassava more competitive in domestic and international markets. Since achieving that will depend on stronger growth in demand for the crop, the strategy proposes to develop cassava-based industries through a synergy of national, regional and continental strategies and plans, supported by global efforts to identify and stimulate markets.
Market demand. For cassava to be a major contributor to development, its market must grow more rapidly than population. The strategy advises, as a first, essential step, identification of markets that are growing or have the potential to expand. The second step is to guarantee a consistent supply of a relatively uniform product - Thailand made headway in Europe only after it began using improved pelleting equipment and concentrated on large volumes. Step three is to provide the market with competitively priced products that meet consumers' needs.
Because cassava roots are highly perishable, processing is central to the future of the crop. At present, most roots are consumed or sold close to where they are produced. But at CIAT in Colombia, researchers have found that preservative treatments - such as dipping fresh roots in wax or paraffin - can extend storage life for three to four weeks.
Home and village-level processed products, particularly toasted flour (known as farinha in Brazil and gari in West Africa), could be marketed more widely as convenience foods because they are easy to buy, store and prepare. Cassava flour (foufou in Central Africa) can be used as a partial substitute for wheat flour and may lead to different grades of breads - and prices - for the consumer. The product has potential in many developing countries, particularly Africa, where bread made entirely from imported wheat dominates the market. Research is being done at IITA, Nigeria to evaluate, in partnership with the bakery industry, different combinations of cassava/wheat flour.
Cassava starch also has high growth potential, both for industrial and human uses - its viscosity and resistance to shear stress and freezing make it attractive for manufacturers of speciality food products, carpets and rubber latex. To compete with starches derived from maize and sweet potato, the cassava starch industry will need to capitalize on special traits not available in other products.
Finally, animal feeds derived from cassava - mostly meal and pellets - have been a major success for Thailand. However, the main constraint to its greater use in animal feed is lack of reliable supply throughout the year and inconsistent quality. Above all, processed products must compete with grain products. Lowering the cost of production is, therefore, crucial to cassava's survival as an industrial crop.
Published June 2000