Treading carefully through a brown field in the mid-day heat, a smallholder farmer in the Philippines points to a recent batch of cassava. Although the weather has not been favorable for some crops, his cassava harvest allowed him to pay for school fees and provide food for the family, he explained.Unlike in some countries in Asia, farmers in the Philippines still cultivate root and tuber crops like cassava as staples. Here, as in Indonesia and among ethnic minorities in mountainous, marginal areas on the main land, few other crops grow in the poor, sloped soils.
While the food security agenda in the Asia-Pacific is dominated by grain crops, rice and wheat, root and tuber crops are a staple food for millions. Their diverse varieties contribute to a wider range of minerals and nutrients in the diet, and a more resilient ecosystem.
New regional project launched
A three-year project has now been launched in the Philippines, spanning China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam, to tackle vulnerability among poor communities specifically dependent on root and tuber crops for their food and income.
The “Food Resilience through Root and Tuber Crops in Upland and Coastal Communities of the Asia-Pacific,” project, known as FoodSTART+, will assess and identify how root and tuber crops can strengthen the food security of poor households.
The initiative, funded by the European Union managed by IFAD, is led by the International Potato Center in collaboration with CIAT, will assess income-earning opportunities to tap into regional value chains, as well as nutritional advantages to be gained by growing a diverse range of root and tuber crops.
The project is intended to bridge research and development gaps, working closely with large-scale IFAD investment projects to reach more farmers and deepen impact.
Opening of the exhibit by Gordon Prain, Gelia Castillo and Mr Nguyen Thanh Tung. Credit: Angelica Barlis.
Root and tubers like sweetpotato, cassava, yam and taro, are directly consumed in a variety of traditional fresh and processed foods. They also play an increasing important role as a source of income, both in urban fresh markets and from processing in food and non-food industries.
Many are also considered buffer crops when disasters like typhoons strike, or during acute food scarcity following extreme weather events. Farmers turn to root and tuber crops for an income, or to provide emergency food supplies.
“We know that poor families who depend on root and tuber crops in the region are often the most vulnerable,” said Brice Even, CIAT’s Market Access Specialist based in Hanoi, Vietnam.
“But what we want to know is how root and tuber crops can enable farmers to tap into new market opportunities to work their way out of poverty. At the same time, we want to assess how these crops can best be managed, to improve diversity in the diet of communities – and strengthen the natural environment and resilience capacity of the most vulnerable populations to better withstand climate shocks.”
Building on resilience
The project builds on the success of a previous four-year project FoodSTART, during which researchers worked with national governments in the region to recognize the multi-dimensional nature of food security beyond simply food availability, to provide nutrition and diversity as well.
CIAT’s work in Asia on root and tuber crops spans decades to improve food security in the region. This new project is part of a wider strategic research initiative to investigate urban and informal markets, distribution dynamics and gender relations to understand rapidly changing food supply chains in Asia.
Asia is now the world’s largest trader of cassava and cassava products. This burgeoning market represents a huge opportunity for poor smallholder farmers to earn a better income from a crop which requires little investment and can grow on very poor soil.