Cassava Boom in Southeast Asia
Improved high-starch varieties are boosting
Southeast Asia's cassava output while diversification of marketing
helps stabilize prices. In Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam, the
improved cassava varieties developed by CIAT in collaboration
with national researchers have already spread to more than 500,000
hectares. According to CIAT's preliminary but conservative estimates,
the new varieties have created benefits of nearly a half billion
dollars over the last seven years, mostly for small farmers. At
the same time, employment in cassava processing has risen rapidly.
The humble root crop covers 3.9 million
hectares in Asia, more than in Latin America, where cassava originated.
Because the crop is highly tolerant of drought and infertile soils,
it is planted mostly by Southeast Asia's poorest farmers living
in marginal uplands, above the more productive lowlands occupied
by wet rice.
"We've found that improved varieties
of cassava, developed from crosses between local and Latin American
germplasm, increase farmers' crop yields by 20 to 40 percent,
says Kazuo Kawano, a CIAT cassava breeder. "The roots of
the new varieties also have much higher starch contents. Greater
starch yields from the same amount of land translate into higher
income for farmers who sell cassava to starch processors."
The new varieties resulted from Kawano's
longstanding collaboration with national research institutes in
a half dozen Asian countries. The Japanese government supported
CIAT's cassava research in Asia for more than a decade.
"In just two years, improved varieties
developed in Thailand have spread to nearly ten percent of Vietnam's
total cassava area of 283,000 hectares, according to Hoang Kim,"
director of the Hung Loc Agricultural Research Center in Dong
Nai province. "Farmers are especially enthusiastic about
the varieties in southern Vietnam, where most of our starch processing
Starch processing in Vietnam is performed
both in rural households with traditional methods and by large,
modern factories. Most of the starch goes to domestic food processing,
mainly into the production of monosodium glutamate, an important
flavoring agent, while some is used in the production of textiles,
paper, and other products.
Until recently, the Vietnamese considered
cassava a crop of last resort. "It has helped Vietnam through
at least two major famines since World War II and was a staple
of the Vietnamese army during the wars with France and the USA,"
says Thai Phien of Vietnam's National Institute for Soils and
Fertilizers. But now the crop is acquiring a new image as a raw
material for industry.
Thailand was the first country to exploit
the industrial prospects of cassava on a large scale. Since the
1970s it has exported enormous quantities of dried cassava chips
and pellets to the countries of the European Union, which use
them in animal feed. More recently, the private sector in Thailand
has created new cassava markets by exploiting the crop's potential
as a source of cheap starch. According to reports from Kasetsart
University in Bangkok, about 50 percent of the country's cassava
now goes to starch production. About a third of this is further
processed into various modified starches, and half of the total
starch production is exported to Taiwan and Japan.
With the benefits of the new varieties have
come risks. "In 1995, cassava prices were quite high in Thailand
and Vietnam, prompting farmers to expand the area planted,"
says CIAT agronomist Reinhardt Howeler. "Then, in 1996, prices
dropped considerably because of overproduction and declining starch
prices in the world market. In Thailand, some growers lobbied
successfully for cassava price subsidies."
However, the private sector's continuing
efforts to further diversify cassava products and markets are
likely to lessen the risks for small scale producers throughout
Southeast Asia: "Competing demands for cassava roots should
enable growers to obtain better prices," said Howeler. "Continued
adoption of improved varieties will further increase their returns
from the same amount of land."
To balance its cassava production with industrial
demand, Thailand embarked in 1993 on a program to reduce the cassava
area by 20 percent and intensify production on the remaining area
through massive dissemination of improved varieties. "By
1996, the new varieties had spread to about 384,000 hectares or
nearly a third of the country's total cassava area," explains
Wilawan Vongkasem of Thailand's Department of Agricultural Extension.
A potential downside of the cassava boom
is the fragility of upland soils on which the crop is grown. To
meet rising demand, farmers will inevitably intensify production,
raising the specter of serious soil erosion, warned Howeler. With
a grant from Japan's Nippon Foundation, he is working closely
with national institutes and farmers to find ways of making the
cassava boom environmentally sustainable.
Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT)