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Cassava: A Promising Example of climate-resilient crops That minimize waste and maximize value

By Sophia Busam

Cassava, also known as yuca, is a staple root vegetable common in West Africa, South America, and South and Southeast Asia. It is one of the most common global staple crops, with annual yields of about 160 million tons.1 It is extremely versatile – it can be eaten whole, grated, or ground into cassava flour to use in cookies, dumplings, or quick breads. It is also a starch that’s used in a variety of applications, including tapioca (i.e. the pearls in your bubble tea) and as a raw material to produce ethanol, sorbitol, MSG, etc.. You can even ferment the juice into a liquor known as kasiri. It is a vital contributor to global food security both in its primary and processed forms.

The tapioca pearls in this boba come from cassava starch!

History of Cassava

Cassava was first domesticated 10,000 years ago in South America.2 Today, an estimated 800 million people worldwide consume the crop, with 500 million in Africa depending on it as their main staple food. The cassava plant grows perennially and takes about eight months to mature. Then it’s ready for harvest. Since the plant continues to grow from offshoots, it can continue to be harvested for several years.3 It’s also a climate-resilient crop. It’s drought resistant and can grow in poor soil.4

Cassava Plant Processing

Cassava has a very short shelf life because of a process known as post-harvest physiological deterioration (PPD), which quickly causes the root to be unpalatable and unsellable.5 This problem forces the plant to be quickly consumed or processed after harvesting. Cassava flour, as a result, proves to be a critical solution in processing the plant within its two day rot window. The flour comes from the tuber of the cassava plant and is naturally gluten-free. To clarify, tubers are the enlarged structure that stores organs for nutrients in some plants (ex. ginger, potatoes, cassava). With a structure similar to wheat, cassava provides an easy gluten-free substitute for any baked goods. It also boasts nutritional benefits including high fiber, potassium, and Vitamin C.6

Unprocessed cassava is also potentially dangerous if consumed in large quantities or with improper preparation. Raw cassava contains chemicals called cyanogenic glycosides, which release small amounts of cyanide when consumed.7 Soaking and cooking the root prior to consumption will decrease the level of these harmful chemicals. Processing completely eliminates this risk.

Maximizing Value from Cassava Plants

Different countries are at different stages in maximizing their cassava processing value chain. For example, in Nigeria, high transportation costs means that processing facilities are not operating at full capacity because of the difficulty transporting product from farms to facilities, often located far away on difficult roads.8 In Thailand, on the other hand, 90% of cassava grown is processed and exported successfully. In general, only about 2.5% of all cassava goes to waste, the majority of which comes from on-farm mishaps.9

It isimportant to know where cassava flour comes from when considering the impact of upcycling and the amount of food waste. There is a distinct different between countries where the product is exported (where processing is more efficient with minimal waste) and where it is utilized domestically (ensuring food security and reducing reliance on imported food). As a result, increasing global consumption of cassava flour has the potential to create a system that ensures market expansion for the crop while bolstering the economies of producing countries.

A Promising Wheat Flour Alternative

One study found that, compared to wheat flour, cassava has less fat and more fiber, making it an appealing dietary alternative to wheat.10 It consists of both soluble and insoluble fibers, which slow digestion and also support the gut. Beyond the dietary factors, there are several economic reasons to support this transition. With wheat prices increasing, cassava flour offers an increasingly viable alternative to ensure food security for many populations.11 In fact, Nigeria’s government incentivized bakeries to substitute wheat flour with cassava flour when making bread for a tax rebate.12 Since cassava is locally produced, the government hopes to reduce demand for wheat, which is an imported good.13 Compared to most other gluten-free flours, cassava also has a very similar texture to wheat, creating nearly identical doughs.

Looking more broadly outside of countries where cassava is common, diverse product offerings and diversifying crop supply supports resilience, decreases risk and dependence on fluctuating grain prices, and allows opportunities for wider consumer appeal. Cassava flour is not only gluten-free, but it is also lower in calories than traditional flour, appealing to a cross-section of health-conscious consumers like those on keto, paleo, and grain-free diets.14 Unlike other popular gluten-free flours like almond flour, cassava flour is also nut free. By incorporating cassava flour into your products, you will be able to provide customers with a healthy, nutritious product that leaves them more energized and satiated between meals. It’s a win-win: they’ll be able to adhere to their dietary preferences while also enjoying the typically grain-based products they love and miss. Interested in learning more, reach out to us here!

The Future of Cassava & A Circular Food Economy

Unlike many other upcycled ingredients, cassava is unique in that most of the plant is already being utilized. It’s a prime example of how to maximize value from a crop, leaving minimal residual waste. As previously mentioned, cassava is used to producer a wide variety of products for both human consumption (tapioca, flour, unprocessed) and use (animal feed, bioethanol fuel, paper, etc.). This versatility shows how many value-added products can be extracted from a single plant. Additionally, as our environment continues to shift and growing conditions change, more attention is drawn to cassava as a substitute for maize.15 With that, attention must be paid to how cultivation of the plant will be scaled to ensure that farming practices do not contribute to further deforestation and soil degradation.16 We should also consider how we can find similar versatility in other climate-resilient crops to minimize waste and maximize value.

Sources

  1. https://plants.usda.gov/DocumentLibrary/plantguide/pdf/pg_maes.pdf ↩︎
  2. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-cassava-revolution-could-feed-the-worlds-hungry/ ↩︎
  3. Ibid ↩︎
  4. https://appliedecologistsblog.com/2024/02/13/research-into-cassava-a-promising-crop-under-climate-change/#:~:text=Cassava%20is%20a%20hugely%20promising,events%20alter%20expected%20harvesting%20dates. ↩︎
  5. (Reilly et al., 2003, Reilly et al., 2007, Wheatley, 1982, Wheatley and Gomez, 1985 ↩︎
  6. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/1103070/nutrients ↩︎
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC35028/#:~:text=All%20cassava%20tissues%2C%20with%20the,et%20al.%2C%201995). ↩︎
  8. https://www.gro-intelligence.com/insights/cassava-production-and-processing# ↩︎
  9. https://www.gro-intelligence.com/insights/cassava-production-and-processing# ↩︎
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5580950/ ↩︎
  11. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/global-food-prices-rise-after-russia-ends-ukraine-grain-deal-and-india-restricts-rice-exports ↩︎
  12. https://www.gro-intelligence.com/insights/cassava-production-and-processing# ↩︎
  13. https://www.gro-intelligence.com/insights/cassava-production-and-processing# ↩︎
  14. https://www.researchgate.net/figure/TOTAL-SOLUBLE-AND-INSOLUBLE-FIBER-CONTENT-IN-THE-SEVERAL-CULTIVARS-OF-CASSAVA-ROOTS_tbl2_263043693 ↩︎
  15. https://www.fao.org/3/j1255e/j1255e0a.htm ↩︎
  16. https://environmentalevidencejournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13750-018-0142-2 ↩︎
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