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[BEIJING] The First World Congress on Root and Tuber Crops opened Monday (18 January) in Nanning, China, to discuss the significance of roots and tubers, emphasising cassava as a means to reduce poverty and increase food security on a global scale.

The congress brings together the scientific world and the private sector to create an exchange of scientific and expert advice on roots and tubers and discuss opportunities in the industry to fight poverty and ensure food security for poor farmers and growing populations in developing countries.

Cassava, an important diet staple in many developing countries, has multiple applications that make it an important global crop. It is used as livestock feed as well as in the paper industry, textiles, sweeteners, processed food sector, pharmaceuticals, alcohol, bioplastics and biofuel.

According to the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), cassava is a cash crop with a global export value of over US$3.6 billion in cassava starch, fresh and dried roots.

But cassava is often perceived as an “economic inferior” good that still has a reputation of being a secondary refuge crop grown by poor upland farmers, Jonathan Newby, agricultural and rural resource economist at CIAT, pointed out during the opening ceremony of the congress.

According to Newby, national governments give cassava low priority. Limited private sector investment beyond the processing industry presents another challenge in pushing cassava as a research priority.

Yet cassava presents many opportunities for poor farmers to increase their incomes and for developing countries to attain food security.

The crop tolerates stress, drought, heat, and can grow year round in poor soil in marginal upland environments with minimal investment. It can also cover part of the rising demand for starch and other forms of carbohydrate in Asia and developing nations in other regions.

According to Hans Rosling, a professor at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the population of Asia is estimated to grow 25 per cent while the African continent will see its population double by 2050. With that immense population growth rate in mostly developing countries, the question of how to feed them rises.

“Governments have to take responsibility for the research of the major crops in the world to ensure that poverty will be reduced and food security can be ensured for a growing population,” says Rosling.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s South-East Asia & Pacific desk.