Cassava to compete with major crops in the starch game?
cassava could be an economic alternative for a food industry
currently undergoing squeezed margins through high raw material
The staple food for over 500 million people, cassava is a good commercial cash crop and a major source of food security, but it needs a competitive edge to thrive in the global starch market. A factor for economic development highlighted recently by the UN-backed Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
"For many indigenous tropical starch crops, the lack of competitive market access has become the major obstacle to their contribution to agricultural development," said Morton Satin in a report for the FAO.
For Satin, competiting in the mainstream commodity starch arena - maize, wheat or potato - is 'extremely difficult', particularly when it is not the commodities themselves that are the competition, 'but rather the functional characteristics of the value-added products'.
With global wheat stocks running at a 30 year low, soybean prices at 9 year highs and corn bushels prices at the highest seen in 6 years, efforts to design appropriate starch sources from cassava up to industry demand would be welcomed by companies working in the food chain. A valuable development, the arrival of such starch sources onto the market would boost the economic position of developing countries currently key producers of cassava, as well as easing margins for the food firms.
"Modern value-added products are generally very application-specific and are thus far less susceptible to the sort of market fluctuations that cause chaos to developing countries whose economies are built upon basic commodities,' said Satin.
In fact, that's how starch should be viewed - as a set of functional characteristics suited to a particular application, he added. When aiming at functional properties in starch, most commercial companies examine the characteristics of competitive starches in particular applications. This sets the target to shoot for, said Satin. For those characteristics which are unattainable with native starches, the only alternative is to look towards some form of value-addition to achieve the desired results, he added.
Found in a wide range of food applications - from soup to pie fillings - functionality is the key to the marketing of starches in a competitive market.
Current for functionalities include gel texture, flow properties, emulsion stabilising capacity, mouthfeel, lubricity, adhesiveness and crystallinity.
Until recently, the starch markets of the world were virtually closed to foreign countries because high import duties created barriers to trade for anything but the most basic of commodities. But in April 1994 the GATT Uruguay Round paved the way for new trade opportunities.
According to Satin, while the trade round offers 'tremendous potential' for the profitable commercial use of tropical starches, considerable research and product development of a new type is necessary to properly exploit these materials.
"The model for product quality and reliability has already been set by the international starch industry. If locally-produced tropical starches cannot reach an equivalent level of quality, functionality or reliability, then these products will never survive in the competitive market," he said.
In 2002 Nigeria came in as the largest producer of cassava in the world, with over 33 million metric tonnes over a total area of 3.1 million hectares. But in 2003 despite favourable weather conditions in the country, an outbreak of mosaic disease placed its cassava crop under some jeopardy, threatening the government's recently announced initiative to expand production for value-added cassava products.
Grown in tropical and subtropical areas of the world, notably Asia and southern Africa, cassava is cultivated for its starchy, tuberous roots that can be processed into tapioca, ground to produce manioc or cassava meal (Brazilian arrowroot), used as animal fodder or cooked and eaten as a vegetable.
The FAO estimates that global cassava utilisation as feed remained about 50 million tonnes in 2002, most of which is concentrated in Latin America and the Caribbean, China in Asia, Nigeria in Africa and the EU.
International trade in aggregate dry cassava products - also known as tapioca - underwent a sharp contraction in 2002, falling by 19 per cent to just under 6 million tonnes (in cassava pellet equivalent). Despite a slight increase in the volume traded in the form of flour and starch, which stood at 2.6 million tonnes (1.3 million tonnes in product weight), trade in chips and pellets fell by 33 per cent to 4.5 million tonnes.
Much of the contraction in global cassava trade was concentrated in the EU, for years the major destination of cassava shipments, which it principally imported from Thailand - the world's leading exporter - in the form of pellets for the feed industry under a low tariff rate preferential quota.
Lagging far behind on the research front when compared to other basic food crops such as wheat or corn, in 2002 the FAO established the 'Global Partnership for Cassava Genetic Improvement' to better the world's understanding about this reliable crop.
A slice of research earmarked for investigation is 'modified starch quality for better marketability'. The food industry must be alert to the findings from this science network as it could well open the door to viable alternatives to current sources rooted in high price raw materials.