Looking into the future to guide investment in root, tuber and banana crops

Looking into the future to guide investment in root, tuber and banana crops

With changing climates, demands on agriculture are also increasing. Root, tuber and banana crops will continue to be important across the developing world, in particular in Africa, where the population is expected to rise faster and for longer than on other continents. The crops of the future will need to be higher yielding, pest and disease resistant, and adapted to new climates. A collaboration among researchers of the RTB and the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM) used foresight analysis to show that root, tuber and banana crops can contribute to food security in the world’s poorest regions if research and development (R&D) investments in those crops is increased.

The population of Africa is expected to double by 2050, and the continent is heavily reliant on root, tuber and banana crops for food security and livelihoods. With global temperatures set to exceed a 2°C increase by 2100, world crop production may fall unless there is R&D to reverse declining yields and to help farmers to adapt to new climates. Agriculture is changing in other ways as well, with more farming being done by women, with rural youth leaving for the cities, greater pressure on farmland and the new food preferences of the emerging middle class. Potato production is expected to rise in India and China, and more bananas may be grown in Latin America. In Africa, root, tuber and banana crops will be key food staples for the next generation. The systemic interaction of these changes will demand sophisticated models to guide research soon.

Innovative holistic breeding strategies will need to be developed to embrace the full pipeline from trait discovery to varietal deployment and seed system development, says Philip Thornton, a modeler with the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). Modelling and other forms of foresight analysis will be crucial to identify plant breeding and other research needs for the future.

Root, tuber and bananas crops may prove more climate resistant than other crops, but climate change will create new niches for pests and move their ecological frontiers. Plant breeding and other strategies to manage pests and diseases will be crucial for future food production.

Athanasios Petsakos of CIP, and colleagues at the Global Futures and Strategic Foresight project (GFSF) of the PIM have modelled the results on crop productivity (including supply, demand and yield) under different investment scenarios of the future, noting that there is already less investment and research in roots, tubers and bananas than in cereals, pulses and other crops.

Farmers often grow sweetpotato alongside banana and cassava in Uganda. S. Fernandes (RTB)
Investments that aim at increasing productivity in regions which are expected to face high population pressures, like sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, can serve to efficiently target increasing supply and reducing dependency from imports, says Petsakos.

The GFSF modeled the future of these crops based on projected population and economic growth and climate change. The modeling showed that the investments in market access, such as improved infrastructure, would not contribute significantly to greater yield or supply of roots, tubers and bananas. Targeting crop productivity, especially through plant breeding, will alleviate production constraints and strengthen the future role of root, tuber and banana crops more than investing in marketing and infrastructure.

With no future changes in investment strategies (that is, business-as-usual), by 2050 the production of roots, tubers and bananas will reach 1,400 million tons, a global increase of almost 50% over 2010, with the greatest increase coming from developing countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia.  Investment in agricultural research would lead to additional increases of 25 to 50% in the global supply of roots, tubers and bananas by 2050.

Regional investment would help to improve trade balances and improve food security for each continent.

This foresight analysis shows that roots, tubers and bananas will be important in the future for feeding people in the world’s poorest regions, and for creating positive impacts on food security, making African countries self-sufficient in food production and reducing the risks of volatile price changes. Root, tuber and banana crops are generally climate resilient and nutritious, making them key for reducing malnutrition and poverty in a warmer world, with an increasing population. A sound way to ensure that the full potential of root, tuber and banana crops is achieved is to increase investment in research now.

Bean diversity helps farmers tackle climate change. G. Smith (Alliance Bioversity-CIAT)