In a new study, experts are describing the untapped potential of cassava, a low-cost root crop that is nicknamed the “Rambo root” for its resilience. Cassava can endure rising temperatures and thrives in poor quality soils. In most tropical countries, cassava also produces the highest amount of calories per hectare.
Study co-author Eliza J. Villarino is a researcher at the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). She explained that cultivating cassava has the potential to restore degraded land, which can reduce hunger, fight climate change, and even promote peace.
“Evidence suggests it could potentially revive degraded land and make it productive anew, generating numerous positive socioeconomic and environmental impacts with proper crop management,” said Villarino.
Cassava would be ideal for farmers to grow on abandoned agricultural or pasture land. It could revive the soils and prepare the land for growing other crops such as cacao or coffee. According to the study authors, this would be especially helpful in Colombia’s conflict areas as an alternative to illicit coca farming.
“Cassava has potential to restore degraded land, which in turn could lower greenhouse gas emissions, alleviate hunger and reduce poverty,” said Villarino. “The solution could generate livelihoods and market opportunities, and even promote peace because countries with significant degraded areas are also those that are mired in or emerging from conflict.”
Augusto Castro Nunez is a climate expert at the Alliance and the leader of the Sustainable Land Use Systems project.
“In Colombia, there is a link between illegal crops, cattle ranching, deforestation and conflict. We acknowledge that scaling up production of any commodity risks an increase in deforestation and biodiversity loss, and we need to do more research. But what we know is that we need something new; what has been done to prevent deforestation is not working, and this is something new,” explained Nunez.
The researchers theorize that cassava may absorb cadmium, a metal found in the soil. High levels of cadmium prevent some cacao growers in Colombia and other parts of Latin America from exporting their cacao. Furthermore, cassava has the potential to replace starch from crops like maize and soybeans – two commodities that are tied to deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.
“Studies in Brazil have shown that cassava has high heavy metal content when planted in heavy-metal contaminated areas,” said study co-author Mayesse Da Silva. “We therefore suspect cassava might help absorb heavy metals from the soil and mitigate heavy metal contamination in cocoa while helping cocoa producers generate income from selling cassava while cocoa is not productive yet, since cassava takes six months to harvest and cocoa up to three years. However, this is only a hypothesis and requires further research.”
“Cassava can offer a solution to put back degraded land while helping nature and farmers, pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and locking it into the soil or converting it into food,” said Luis Augusto Becerra, who is a cassava geneticist at CIAT. “If properly managed, cassava can help smallholder farmers move to a forest-based agriculture for improved environmental outcomes, where high value fruit trees like cacao can be grown, also boosting incomes.”
The study is published in the journal Conservation Science and Practice.
By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer