Climate Change

This root vegetable could help alleviate hunger and end soil erosion. Here’s how

A Vietnamese woman transports cooked cassava and potato for sale by a bicycle on a street in Hanoi, Vietnam August 29, 2017. REUTERS/Kham - RC1ED76929E0

Cassava is popular across the world. Image: REUTERS/Kham

Sean Fleming
Senior Writer, Formative Content
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Climate Change

  • Cassava is a root crop that could potentially help alleviate world hunger, according to a new study.
  • Its ability to bring depleted soil back to life could enable farmers to grow other crops, such as soy.
  • But soy is responsible for significant deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.
  • An area roughly the size of California was lost to deforestation around the world between 2004 and 2017, says the WWF.
  • The cassava researchers argue a new approach is needed.

What thrives in poor soil, can tolerate rising temperatures and is brimming with calories?

The cassava – sometimes referred to as ‘the Rambo root’. This plant could potentially help alleviate world hunger, provide economically viable agriculture and even put an end to soil erosion, according to research published in the journal Conservation Science and Practice.

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Also known as yuca (but distinct from the ornamental yucca plant) the root of the cassava is a staple of many Caribbean and South American meals – and it will thrive in conditions too difficult for many other plants.

A farmer pulls out yuca roots from his field on the outskirts of Havana
The cassava is also know as ‘the Rambo root’. Image: REUTERS/Desmond Boylan

A gateway crop

“Evidence suggests (cassava) could potentially revive degraded land and make it productive anew, generating numerous positive socioeconomic and environmental impacts with proper crop management,” said Maria Eliza Villarino, the report’s lead author and a researcher at the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), in the science publication, PhysOrg.

An estimated 40% of land in Colombia suffers from degradation, according to the alliance. It, therefore, “serves as a good testing ground for exploring the different possibilities that farming cassava could lead to”.

The cassava could become a gateway crop, helping farmers bring once unproductive land back into use. Soil that has been revived could then be used to grow commercial crops like coffee or chocolate, corn or soy.

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What’s the World Economic Forum doing about deforestation?

But cassava mustn’t tread the same path as soy

The global market for soy is estimated at around $150 billion, and around 80% of all soy production comes from the US, Brazil and Argentina. Making space for soy farms has resulted in significant deforestation in parts of the Amazon rainforest, with the WWF estimating that “an area roughly the size of California” was lost to deforestation around the world between 2004 and 2017.

a graph showing the level of deforestation in the Brazilian amazon from 2004 to 2020
Deforestation rates in Brazil reached their highest level in over a decade last year. Image: Statista

“We acknowledge that scaling up production of any commodity risks an increase in deforestation and biodiversity loss, and we need to do more research," Augusto Castro Nunez, a land-use and climate specialist at the alliance, said in the PhysOrg article. "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.”

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Related topics:
Climate ChangeFuture of the EnvironmentAgriculture, Food and Beverage
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