Climate change and rising population put pressure on essential crops in low-income regions

Crops such as bananas, potatoes, and cassava are essential to food security in the world’s poorest regions. By 2050, their importance will increase, but climate change and population growth will put unprecedented pressure on production

Climate change and population growth are increasing concerns for global food security. Modeling future agricultural trends that account for these seismic shifts is essential to understanding food supply and income generation, especially in low-income countries. Research often focuses on widely consumed cereal crops, which form a substantial portion of the global diet. But roots, tubers, and bananas are the mainstay of diets in many of the world’s poorest regions, and a new analysis shows these crops have great potential for reducing malnutrition and poverty through 2050, as long as they are on the receiving end of appropriately targeted investments.

Known as RTBs, these crops include plantains, cassava, potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, and tropical and Andean roots and tubers. They are some of the most valuable crops in the world’s poorest regions. Rich in nutrients, vitamin A and carbohydrates, RTBs often outperform cereals in terms of energy per cultivated hectare, and can produce high yields under harsh conditions – including extreme climate events that go hand-in-hand with climate change.

These traits make RTBs particularly important for undernourished populations such as in sub-Saharan countries, where they contribute up to 50 percent of the daily calorie intake. What is more, they have a significant role in income generation and are frequently grown and marketed by women.

“RTBs are the mainstay of diets and rural livelihoods in many poor regions,” said Guy Hareau, a researcher at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru and co-author of the analysis published in Global Food Security. “However, overcoming the productivity and market challenges are constrained by underinvestment.”

RTBs only receive a fraction of the attention given to other food commodities. The number of researchers dedicated to RTB crops in Africa, Asia, and Latin America during 2010-2014 was only one third the number of those dedicated to cereals and livestock, according to the analysis. This underinvestment is also mirrored in the gap in the literature on RTB crops, which is needed to inform food security interventions and policy.

Increased attention is warranted not just because of food security and nutrition. Some RTBs are being grown for industrial purposes, including cassava for starch, and potatoes for biofuels. Growth in these industries could increase demand even further than projected.

“One understudied issue is the extent to which industry will increase demand on these staple crops to produce biofuels and starch,” said Steven Prager, a co-author from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and co-leader of the CGIAR’s Global Futures & Strategic Foresight initiative. “We need to take a serious look at how these humble crops are hooked into global markets and how policy decisions around the world can affect the markets for these crops, today and well into the future.”

Enoch Kikulwe, a co-author from Bioversity International echoes the sentiment: “A rising demand for biofuel or industrial starch is likely to exert pressure on RTB crops, especially cassava, which can result in an increase in prices, depriving poor people from accessing their staples as predicted in this research.”

RTBs, today and tomorrow

The analysis was conducted by researchers at five CGIAR research centers – CIP, CIAT, Bioversity International, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) – within the framework of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB).

Growth in RTB production has increased steadily in the last 50 years, most rapidly in Africa, albeit slower than cereals. Asia has now become the largest RTB-producing region, with much of growth concentrated on potato and sweet potato production in China. In Latin America, RTBs are important staples and cash crops throughout the region.

Their key role in providing calories and nutrition makes it crucial to examine long-term trends in RTB supply and demand to better understand how focused investments can bolster their production. The existing studies, however, consist of primarily inadequate projections (limited in terms of geographic coverage, time horizon, and range of crops) that do not capture the impacts of socioeconomic drivers and climate change.

The study builds on research by IFPRI and other CGIAR centers that explores future trends for crops. The IFPRI study provided a baseline projection for 2050, including an assessment of the different agricultural investments to understand future changes in matters of food security. The projection takes into account socioeconomic and climate change pathways – namely the Shared Socioeconomic Pathway 2 and the Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5, developed by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change – which follow a business-as-usual scenario of fairly rapid change in the population, economic growth and climate change.

“In this research, we were happy to join with CGIAR colleagues to look at the prospective role of RTBs under a future in which we face challenges not only from increasing total demands and shifting diets but also potentially adverse effects of climate change on production systems,” said Tim Sulser, a co-author from IFPRI. “Investments in research and development for RTBs are important for addressing the imminent challenges we will be facing in the coming decades.”

Using the study’s baseline scenario and the assessment related to RTB crops, the new study examines how RTB agriculture will look like in 2050. Climate change and water availability will be key factors for crop productivity: whereas banana and potato are sensitive to water stress, cassava, yam, and sweet potato are drought tolerant. Agro-ecological conditions and poverty will cause the consumption of RTBs to increase, especially in Africa, indicating their growing importance for food security. While potato stands out as the crop most affected by changing preferences, especially in China, the banana will exhibit the highest growth in supply and demand across all regions.

The analysis also reveals that targeted, localized investments can strengthen the role of RTBs as food security crops. Specifically, investments that aim at increasing productivity offer greater benefits than investments in marketing improvements.

This blog was first published on the CIAT’s website.