Video: the stakes are high

11 September, 2015 by (comments)

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Demand for cassava in Asia is on the rise. As wet or dry starch, it’s in everything from noodles to pharmaceutical products, and has a growing niche in gluten-free and low fat foods. In Cambodia, this is a massive opportunity for smallholder farmers, who depend on income from the crop to support their livelihoods.

But cassava intensification could have dramatic environmental costs if it’s not managed properly. And farmers face mounting challenges in cultivating cassava profitably: from a swathe of emerging pests and diseases devastating harvests to declining soil fertility, climate shocks and volatile market prices.

Huong Sokhang on the front line: safeguarding cassava.

Huong Sokhang, farmer and group leader in Cambodia.

Huong Sokhang, a group leader of 30 farmers since 2013, knows the value of cassava for her family. She is one of around 40 million people across Southeast Asia who depend on the annual production of about 75 million tons of cassava grown as a cash crop on four million hectares.

Since the market is broad, it offers many opportunities for income generation. The crop can be stored in the soil throughout the year if it can’t be sold – and it’s relatively climate hardy. That’s especially important in Southeast Asia, which is increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Dramatic impacts if not properly managed

Since 2009, supported by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Training of Trainer courses – complete demonstration and field activity courses on sustainable cassava production – have been provided by CIAT staff, together with the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries across Cambodia.

More than 100 extension staff linked to the IFAD-funded Rural Livelihoods Improvement Project (RULIP) alone, in Ratanakiri, Preah Vihear and Kratie provinces, received training through demonstrations and on-farm trials, delivered by CIAT.

Topics on the training curriculum included management of high-yielding, improved cassava varieties; land preparation and weeding techniques; appropriate use of fertilizers; soil erosion control; planting other crops with cassava for alternative incomes, soil fertility and pest and disease management options, as well as market options.

This year, Huong Sokhang planted cassava vertically, so the stake can take in more moisture from the soil if it’s dry. She learnt about this technique through a training day near her village, and since then, has made significant improvements in her farming.

She now saves US$200 in fertilizer each harvest, for example. She has boosted her yield five tons per hectare, after learning how to apply fertilizer more efficiently.So far, she has invested in new planting material, and can pay school fees and medical bills for her children, as well as buying more regular food for the family.

A pest and disease crisis

Cassava witches' broom is a key cassava threat.

Cassava witches’ broom is a key cassava threat.

But despite, improved management techniques, cassava production is under threat. Emerging pests and diseases are phytosanitary threats which endanger the gains of these initiatives. For example, the cassava witches’ broom disease – a systemic disease resulting in 10–15% yield loss and 20–30% starch content loss – continues to threaten farmers’ yields and income.

In key cassava cropping areas of Cambodia, virtually all cassava fields are infected, and farmers with little choice are planting infected stakes, risking their income.

Investigations are underway by CIAT and national research partners in Southeast Asia through an Emerging Pests and Diseases Project, supported by IFAD, to assess the cause and transmission of emerging threats, and control options. Until then, farmers can only take minimal precautions to prevent disease spread and safeguard their livelihoods.

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Picture credits: G.Smith/CIAT

Brief: Improved cassava management and looming crisis

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Filed Under: Asia @en, Cassava @en, Crops @en, Regions