- By Elizabeth DickinsonElizabeth Dickinson is an Arabian Peninsula-based Dec journalist. Follower her on Twitter: @dickinsonbeth.
What would happen if the primary source of calories for a third of sub-Saharan Africa’s population suddenly disappeared? That’s the question raised by recent reports, including on in the New York Times yesterday, that the crop is threated by a new blight — one to which no strains of the seed are yet resistant. The answer? A big mess.
You probably figured as much out already from reading initial reports. But here’s the scarier part: Right now, the blight is in East Africa. If it makes it to the West, we’re looking at a famine. Why? Because there, the signs of terrible food scarcity there are already brewing; Niger is all but guaranteed to suffer dire straights this year. So take away cassava — the thing that you eat when there’s really nothing else — and there’s actually nothing.
In other words, what’s scary about this is the context. I am no farming expert, but for most subsistence farms in West Africa where I have spent time, casssava isn’t the main crop. It’s just always there, growing, as the back-up plan — the food that you can count on when the rice runs out or when war breaks out. (During the conflict that spanned Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, entire generations survived eating nothing but cassava for months at a time.) Now, imagine you’re a farming family and your main crop fails (or just runs out), and the back-up plan is gone too. There’s no cash to buy more and no product to trade. You’re out of options and out of luck.
Scary as the blight itself is, the solution is also pretty eerie. Right now, all one can do is burn the stuff. But in dire straights, good luck getting people to burn their food. So not to be an alarmist, but this is one to watch. The return of famine like Ethiopia knew in the 1980s may be much closer than we might like to think.
Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy's award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. Lynch previously wrote Foreign Policy's Turtle Bay blog, for which he was awarded the 2011 National Magazine Award for best reporting in digital media. He is also a recipient of the 2013 Elizabeth Neuffer Memorial Silver Prize for his coverage of the United Nations.
Before moving to Foreign Policy, Lynch reported on diplomacy and national security for the Washington Post for more than a decade. As the Washington Post's United Nations reporter, Lynch had been involved in the paper's diplomatic coverage of crises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, and Somalia, as well as the nuclear standoffs with Iran and North Korea. He also played a key part in the Post's diplomatic reporting on the Iraq war, the International Criminal Court, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and U.S. counterterrorism strategy. Lynch's enterprise reporting has explored the underside of international diplomacy. His investigations have uncovered a U.S. spying operation in Iraq, Dick Cheney's former company's financial links to Saddam Hussein, and documented numerous sexual misconduct and corruption scandals.
Lynch has appeared frequently on the Lehrer News Hour, MSNBC, NPR radio, and the BBC. He has also moderated public discussions on foreign policy, including interviews with Susan E. Rice, the U.S. National Security Advisor, Gerard Araud, France's U.N. ambassador, and other senior diplomatic leaders.
Born in Los Angeles, California, Lynch received a bachelor's degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1985 and a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in 1987. He previously worked for the Boston Globe.| Turtle Bay |