In Africa, the climate crisis is impacting all aspects of life — but especially agriculture. A surge of extreme weather events, abrupt shifts in precipitation patterns and steadily rising temperatures have diminished crop production and disrupted food systems. The effects of climate change are particularly challenging for vulnerable populations, such as women in households with low incomes.
While food staples like maize are under enormous stress, cassava stands apart for its natural ability to thrive in hot, dry conditions and poor soils. And while cassava may be unfamiliar to consumers in many parts of the world, it’s already regularly consumed by 700 million Africans in dishes such as the cereal-like gari, doughy fufu, or via freshly boiled or roasted cassava roots.
NextGen Cassava was born from a belief that a new model was needed to fulfill cassava’s enormous potential as the world’s most versatile climate-smart crop—one capable of increasing food security and reducing poverty even in stressful growing conditions.
“In a world facing new challenges to food security from climate change, it’s critical to maintain and extend this cohesive and uniquely effective initiative that is finally giving cassava the attention it deserves." - Ronnie Coffman, principal investigator for NextGen and professor emeritus at Cornell University's School of Integrative Plant Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
The combination of toughness, consumer popularity and rapidly expanding market opportunities—which now include a wide range of industrial uses—has made cassava an ideal sustainable, climate-smart crop that can generate income for hundreds of millions of Africans who depend on farming to support their families.
Just because it’s tough does not mean cassava is invincible. For example, the spread of devastating plant diseases—such as those caused by cassava mosaic and brown streak viruses—may be accelerated by climate change. The challenge is prompting NextGen scientists to focus on new approaches to developing disease-resistant varieties. Cassava also does not meet the full range of dietary needs, so NextGen scientists also have a partnered with other agriculture initiatives, such as HarvestPlus, to develop more nutritious varieties, such as those that offer higher levels of vitamin A.
But there is no question that cassava has attributes that give it a clear head start for becoming a cornerstone of developing more resilient farms and food systems across sub-Saharan Africa.
NextGen is showing that tools commonly used in the world of consumer products—which generate sophisticated market intelligence, detailed customer profiles and compelling branding—can be enormously valuable for tapping the power of advanced crop breeding to achieve critical development goals. Those goals include reducing poverty and malnutrition; helping vulnerable communities adapt to climate change; promoting sustainable food systems; and empowering women with economic opportunities.
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