Cassava (Manihot esculenta Crantz) is the third most important source of calories in the tropics, after rice and maize. Millions of people depend on cassava in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It is grown by farmers, many of them women, often on marginal land. For those people and their families, cassava is vital for both food security and income generation.

But cassava is often seen as a poor cousin in the world's family of staple crops. While admirably tolerant to drought and productive on poor soils, this hardy tropical root seems unsuited to modern farming. First, it is usually propagated from stem cuttings that do not store well and are costly to cut and handle. Vegetative reproduction also means the rate of multiplication of new, improved varieties is slow, retarding their adoption. Harvesting cassava is labour-intensive, and its roots are bulky and highly perishable.

Little wonder, therefore, that poor farmers in marginal areas usually grow cassava – and even there, it faces increasing competition as cereals are further improved to adapt them to local conditions. In fact, far less research and development have been devoted to cassava than to rice, maize and wheat. This lack of scientific interest has contributed to highly uneven cultivation and processing methods, and cassava products that often are of poor quality.

The Global Cassava Development Strategy, launched in Rome in 2000, seeks to change all that. At a forum at FAO headquarters, some 80 agricultural experts from 22 countries were asked whether cassava had the potential not only to meet the food security needs of the estimated 500 million farmers who grow it, but to provide a key to rural industrial development and higher incomes for producers, processors and traders.