In a recent issue of The New York Times, a one-paragraph item on an inner page told of a new threat to a continent already suffering climate-induced food shortages.
A plant virus called cassava brown streak disease has spread across much of the African interior, reducing by as much as 50 million tons a year the harvest of a crop upon which some 500 million Africans rely for their staple food.
It is hard to imagine a worse fate than having to depend for nourishment on a vegetable that, if not prepared exactly right, will sicken, paralyze or quite possibly kill you.
Cassava is a tuberous plant whose root somewhat resembles the potato. Far from a perfect food, it is rich in carbohydrates but contains scant protein — a deficiency said to be especially damaging for young children.
Its tubers contain lethal amounts of natural cyanide, and eating them raw is fatal.
To be fit for human consumption, they must be peeled — a tedious chore — then fermented for three to five days, a process emitting a foul odor.
After drying, the cassava can be made into chips, or a kind of flour. Even then, it may retain traces of toxicity.
A great deal of this treatment takes place at the village or family level. But there also are large commercial producers processing cassava in volume for the general market.
Nigeria is the world’s largest cassava producer. And traveling extensively in that country in the 1960s, and again in the ’90s, I learned that the process is far from fail-safe. Regularly in the Lagos and Ibadan press I came upon reports of cyanide poisoning.
Usually they were isolated village or family incidents. But in processing for commercial volume, sometimes corners were cut, with wider consequences.
The brown streak disease, transmitted by insects and by use of shared farming equipment, renders roots inedible for humans and animals, and it can cause accelerated rotting of stored tubers.
In a part of the world plagued by recurring famines and chronic widespread hunger, the loss of great amounts of food of any sort — even if it’s a food that under some circumstances can harm you —foretells an all but certain crisis.
Given the competing economic and political uncertainties, it is impossible even to speculate how aggressively, and in what manner, the U.S. and other developed countries will respond to what threatens to be a grave humanitarian emergency.