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The role of root and tuber crops in strengthening agri‐food system resilience in Asia. A literature review and selective stakeholder assessment.

The role of root and tuber crops in strengthening agri‐food system resilience in Asia. A literature review and selective stakeholder assessment.

Prain, Gordon and Naziri, Diego ORCID: 0000-0002-8078-5033 (2020) The role of root and tuber crops in strengthening agri‐food system resilience in Asia. A literature review and selective stakeholder assessment. [Working Paper] (doi:

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This publication begins with a review of the literature on resilience, noting the wide diversity of perspectives on the term and the range of disciplines that have employed the concept. From its use to describe engineering systems that are close to equilibrium, the concept of resilience has evolved to characterize non‐linear systems far from equilibrium in ecology and later, in social‐ecological systems where resilience derives from the complex interactions of ecosystems and social systems. It then looks in some detail at the way the term resilience has been used more recently in relation to recovery from disaster and in assuring food and nutrition security. Drawing on this literature, and also on earlier food security work by the Food Security Through Asian Root and Tuber Crops project (FoodSTART), a provisional conceptual framework was proposed to help understand the relationship between shocks and stressors and the social‐ecological system. For this review the latter is characterized as the agri‐food system made up of interacting households with their food access, assets, knowledge and social capital and more or less diverse and robust agro‐ecologies. Shocks and stresses can directly affect food security outcomes, such as through the destruction of crops. But responses coming from the agency of individuals, households and communities in the form of preparedness, coping, adaptation and transformation, can mitigate the negative food security outcomes.

In the light of the theoretical background and the proposed agri‐food system resilience framework, the paper goes on to review literature on different agri‐food systems in the Asian region. It identifies the key characteristics and vulnerabilities of these systems and the important functions of roots and tubers within them. The ubiquity of root and tuber crops (RTCs) among ethnic minorities practicing shifting agriculture throughout the tropical and sub‐tropical hill areas of Asia because they are robust, can be continuously harvested and can be depended upon to contribute to household food and nutritional security. Roots and tubers, especially cassava and potato, also have played significant roles in the widespread transformation of shifting systems into more commercial, permanent field agriculture. Roots and tubers are also important rotation and relay crops in lowland agri‐food systems in Asia, including in coastal areas, where they have been shown to have a role as ‘secondary’ relay crops with primary food and resilience‐related functions. The planting of RTCs in these systems gives rise to their reputation as emergency food. They contribute to increased productivity of the systems through use of marginal spaces and reduced risk through their capacity to withstand weather extremes. Finally, RTCs play a key role in rural and urban homegardens, a distinct agri‐food system that is widespread in the region.

This literature, which was analyzed through the lens of the agri‐food system resilience framework, also provided evidence of the important contribution of roots and tubers to mitigating the effects of different kinds of climate change‐related stressors and shocks and contributing to system adaptation. The paper also presents and discusses the specific characteristics and traits that make these crops particularly tolerant or resistant to shocks and stressors (especially abiotic stressors like heat, drought, soil salinity and water‐logging and shocks like typhoons/cyclones) and important contributors to post‐disaster recovery (for instance, due to the possibility of piecemeal harvesting and their short growing cycles).

In order to validate the findings from the literature review about Asian agri‐food system resilience and the role of roots and tubers within it, a ground‐truthing was conducted through field studies in Northeast India and in central Philippines. This provided access to the voices of women and men who faced different types of shocks and stressors and allowed a better understanding about how they responded, including the role played by RTCs in their responses to the adverse events. It was possible to go beyond homogenous household and community responses to shocks and stressors through differentiating perceptions in terms of genders and socio‐economic status. Whilst those who were better off were often more prepared and more able to respond because of greater asset endowment, some kinds of stressors, such as livestock diseases in East Khasi Hills, affected the better off more severely. The paper presents f examples of adaptation and even transformation occurring among households with different socio‐economic status. Prompted by the literature survey, women and men were also asked about subjective resilience, the individuals’ self‐perceptions about their ability to ‘bounce back’ or ‘bounce forward’ and conversely people’s loss of hope and feeling of incapacity. There was evidence of strong positivity among some women’s groups in the face of stressors and shocks and a determination to “fight back with all their strength”. This included a determination and confidence to find ways to reestablish agriculture by striving to obtain seeds. The importance of reestablishing access to seed through any means available confirmed the commonly identified importance in the literature of seed as a means for supporting longer‐term recovery after shocks and stresses.

It was not always easy to differentiate between types of agency deployed in response to crises, in other words between coping and adaptation and transformation. The case studies also showed differences in responses both within the environments selected and also between them, especially in terms of the level of post‐disaster assistance received and the self‐characterization of responses by different socio‐economic groups.

Discussions with the farming households involved in the field study supported conclusions from both the agro‐ecosystem and the technical literature regarding root and tuber crops. They were reported to play a key role in both highland mixed systems and coastal systems in Asia, agri‐food systems which are among the most vulnerable to climate change. In summary, these crops contribute to the robustness and diversity of agro‐ecologies and strengthen preparedness, coping and adaptation strategies of households.

Item Type: Working Paper
Additional Information: This publication is copyrighted by the International Potato Center (CIP). It is licensed for use under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
Uncontrolled Keywords: Climate change, resilience, agri-food systems, Asia, roots and tubers, cassava, sweetpotato, potato
Subjects: S Agriculture > S Agriculture (General)
Faculty / School / Research Centre / Research Group: Faculty of Engineering & Science
Faculty of Engineering & Science > Natural Resources Institute
Faculty of Engineering & Science > Natural Resources Institute > Development Studies Research Group
Faculty of Engineering & Science > Natural Resources Institute > Food & Markets Department
Last Modified: 05 May 2020 15:18

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