Bananas could replace potatoes in warming world

Bananas on the way to market from the Mount Kenya region Bananas could take the place of potatoes in some developing countries

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Climate change could lead to crops from the banana family becoming a critical food source for millions of people, a new report says.

Researchers from the CGIAR agricultural partnership say the fruit might replace potatoes in some developing countries.

Cassava and the little-known cowpea plant could be much more important food crops as temperatures rise.

People will have to adapt to new and varied menus as traditional crops struggle, say the authors.

Start Quote

When the farmers see the problems they are having with production, they really are willing to shift”

End Quote Bruce Campbell CCAFS

Responding to a request from the United Nations' committee on world food security, a group of experts in the field looked at the projected effects of climate change on 22 of the world's most important agricultural commodities.

Blooming bananas

They predict that the world's three biggest crops in terms of calories provided - maize, rice and wheat - will decrease in many developing countries.

They suggest that the potato, which grows best in cooler climates, could also suffer as temperatures increase and weather becomes more volatile.

The authors argue that these changes "could provide an opening for cultivating certain varieties of bananas" at higher altitudes, even in those places that currently grow potatoes.

Cassava Cassava could help meet food needs in South Asia

Dr Philip Thornton is one of those behind the report. He told BBC News that while bananas and plantains also have limiting factors, they may be a good substitute for potatoes in certain locations.

"It's not necessarily a silver bullet, but there may be places where as temperatures increase, bananas might be one option that small-holders could start to look at."

The report describes wheat as the world's most important plant-derived protein and calorie source.

But according to this research, wheat will face a difficult future in the developing world, where higher prices for cotton, maize and soybeans have pushed wheat to marginal land, making it more vulnerable to stresses induced by climate change.

One substitute, especially in South Asia, could be cassava - which is known to be tolerant to a range of climate stresses.

But how easy will it be to get people to adjust to new crops and new diets?

Bruce Campbell is programme director of the Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security research group (CCAFS) which co-ordinates work among leading institutions around the world. He told BBC News that the types of changes that will happen in the future have already happened in the past.

Protein under pressure

"Two decades ago there was almost no rice consumption in certain areas of Africa, now there is. People have changed because of the pricing: it's easier to get, it's easier to cook. I think those sort of shifts do occur and I think they will in future."

About bananas

  • There are hundreds of types of banana plants but not all actually produce fruit
  • They grow on plants that are giant herbs and are part of the Musaceae family
  • Plantains are starchy like a potato, not sweet like a regular banana
  • Organised banana plantations have been traced back to China in 200 AD
  • Alexander the Great brought them back from India after his conquest in 327 BC
  • Over the centuries they have been called banna, ghana and funana

Source: Dole

One of the big concerns among researchers is how to tackle the need for protein in the diet. Soybeans are one of the most common sources but are very susceptible to temperature changes.

The scientists say that the cowpea, which is known in sub-Saharan Africa as the "poor man's meat" is drought-tolerant and prefers warmer weather and could be a reasonable alternative to soya. The vines of the cowpea can also be used as a feed for livestock.

In some countries, including Nigeria and Niger, farmers have already moved away from cotton production to growing cowpeas.

There are also likely to be developments in animal protein sources says the report, including a shift to smaller livestock.

"This is an example of something that's happening already," said Dr Campbell. "There's been quite a shift from cattle keeping to goat keeping in southern Africa in face of droughts - when the farmers see the problems they are having with production, they really are willing to shift.

"Change is really possible. It's not just a crazy notion."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    84. Surly Tapster
    History has all the evidence. Victorian Britain (which wasn't that long ago in the grand scheme of things) saw the average family having 5/6 children.

    The under-developed world are going through the same stages we have already been through, it will take time for their cultures to change, but it will, exactly how it did for us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    Or those with higher education levels happen to live in the western world with much higher wages and pensions, and don't need more kids to help work in the fields.

    Correlation does not imply causation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    It seems like only yesterday that everybody except the BBC was talking about Climategate, and how data was being (at best) misrepresented.

    There are scientists who claim future yields will rise due to increased CO2. Who to believe? Luckily there are other sources of BOTH SIDES OF THE ARGUMENT!

    Sorry for shouting, but it is my money that pays for this web site too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    It is all those things - population, climate change, water shortage, loss of species etc. Since we live in a resource limited system (the world) and are our technology and demands are reaching the point where we are pushing against those limits then the problems will grow worse unless we find ways to pull back.

    Climate change is just reaching another limit - of the atmosphere to absorb CO2.

  • Comment number 115.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    Apart from expensive wars to kill off a lot of people and so bring the population down there is another method - education. Those with higher education tend to have smaller families as they see the benefits along with a better income and so not have to rely on the children. Back in 1973, chatting wih a Kenyan woman, she gave me this point of view and was proud to have 6 children instead of 12.

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    The subject of sustainable population is today smothered/swept under the carpet just the same as child abuse was until 1980s.

    Human DNA must be close to ostriches as they also bury their heads in sand "what you cant see cant harm you".

    If we continue to bury our heads in sand over so many existinal issues then the only thing most will be eating is worms, or them eating us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    @106. As you say, not an ideal source; and does not relate to emerging economies, which is the point. The remainder of your post refers only to anecdotal evidence - possibly interesting, but not hard data.

  • Comment number 111.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    100.beesaman - "So climate is changing? When hasn't it?.........."

    You are right that it has always changed, BUT there's 2 key differences this time......usually it is a slow, gradual process, rarely as fast as is happening now......secondly it has never happened this quickly or severely since mankind evolved......humanity will survive in some form, civilisation as we know will not......

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    Humanity needs to realise two major things. 1. There are too many people 2. The world environment will change no matter what measures we bring in. So our biggest challenges are how to cope,. So instead of trying to halt the inevitable climate change, we need to learn how to adapt to it. As for the population issue, well, that debate needs more room than HYS.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    To those saying reducing population is the only pressing issue: the world currently produces enough food for everyone. People starve not because there are too many mouths, but because of inefficiency, waste, greed, and economic systems that seek to concentrate wealth, rather than distribute it. Besides, how would you realistically police population growth? Blaming the 3rd world is lazy arrogance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    Has anyone got a recipe for potatofee pie?

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    #84 Not an ideal source, but here is one thing I was able to find on google.

    Also decreased infant mortality is only part of the equation. I have heard that it takes both improved life expectancy as well as at least one or two generations of people actually seeing the results of reduced infant mortality (plus the other economic factors)

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    Whether or not you believe in 'man-made' climate change, we can produce evidence to prove not only has the climate changed in the past, but that it is an on-going process.

    As to the actual story, it makes a lot of sense. Not sure it was worth a charged HYS though..

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    87.Rate this comment negatively
    The people who want to pretend climate change is made up by scientists are the same ones who wanted to pretend smoking didn't cause cancer.
    They are also the ones who believe their wallet is the centre of the Universe, and all science is out to empty it of its contents.

    Personally, I'm with cold hard data, scientifically gathered and peer reviewed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    Dear 4. Pleb

    The reason why people in Asia & Africa have a large number of children is;
    1.When people are too old to work it's only their children that keep them - there's no concept of a pension.
    2. They have many children due to horrifically high child mortality - have 6 children & with luck 3 will survive to keep you .
    3. The main reason for poverty is conflict - not children.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    How much did Fyffes pay the author for this somewhat pointless story?

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    Yeah lets all have bangers and banana mash, roast 'nana's with our roast beef, mince n veg topped with mashed 'nana's etc!

    Because heaven forbid we use SCIENCE to combat this problem and even mention G-M!

    Breakthroughs that could vastly reduce hunger all ignored because of the ingorance of the tabloid press and it's readers!

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    So climate is changing? When hasn't it?
    The real argument is whether humans are having a measurable effect on climate change. Thousands of real scientists do not think humans are having a measurable effect that can be discerned from natural cycles and the normal signal noise inherent in such areas of physical science.


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