Cassava is something of a wonder crop. It can be used for food, paper, biofuels and even clothing; it can stay in the ground for years, to be dug up when it’s needed. It flourishes in the heat of Africa, South East Asia and South Asia.
What a shame, then, that yields of the crop vary so wildly from place to place. As The Economist says this week, in Vietnam it delivers 17 tonnes a hectare, and in South India, 26 tonnes. In Africa the figure is around 8.5 tonnes. It is estimated that a 20 tonne per hectare yield will allow the farmer to make and save money; and 25 tonnes means a good standard of living. Below 12 tonnes means living in poverty. So lower yields in Africa really make a difference.
Why is African cassava so different to Asian cassava? It isn’t. The disparity in yields stems primarily to the prevelance of two plant diseases in Africa. There is no solution in chemicals, little in better farming practices. But research is underway to develop GM strains that are resistant to the viruses that cause the diseases – developments which could, in time, lift huge numbers of African farmers out of hunger and poverty.
Cassava is a microcosm of one of the major challenges facing the world: the severe risks posed by global commodity shortages. As I have blogged before, tighter markets for commodities are already causing economic, social and political upheaval on an immense scale. In food there is a clear and pressing need for a new Green Revolution as populations grow, and as increasing affluence leads consumers to crave the foods of the rich, like beef, which are relatively demanding of land, water, feed and other inputs. And in many people’s eyes, including mine, the basis of that Revolution has to be GM.
Yet despite the clear potential of GM technology it is still vociferously opposed by many, not least some of the main ‘green’ NGOs. This is near-sighted, at best, given GM’s potential to lift farmers out of subsistence, to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture, and to feed the world. It is time for a rethink by them. It is time for European politicians to abandon the moral cowardice of the ‘precautionary principle’ – after all, hundreds of millions of people around the world eat GM food every day, without obvious signs of injury. And it is time that all of us faced up to our moral responsibilities, and demanded change.