Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The False Banana, Key to Food Security

Stem of an Enset Plant
Enset is a plant native to Ethiopia that is often referred to as the false banana because, not surprisingly, of its resemblance to the banana plant. It is grown in the less arid highlands of the southwestern region of Ethiopia. Enset contributes to improved food security for approximately 15 million Ethiopians and, according to Ethiopian researchers, there is potential for expanding consumption of the crop. Over the coming weeks, Food Tank will feature different ways in which the enset plant has significant environmental, social, and economic benefits for farmers and consumers.

A recent report from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) shows that Ethiopia may be facing a famine, based on the coinciding factors of a growing population, detrimental weather conditions, and an unsustainably structured food system. While macro factors like these may be intractable, the production of one native Ethiopian crop has been historically proven to keep food security problems at bay: enset. In a report entitled The Tree Against Hunger from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), five criteria were listed to evaluate food security: adequate volume of food; adequate nutritional intake; annual stability of food supply; accessibility of food; and long-term sustainability of food production. Enset achieves, or helps to achieve, all of these criteria.

The plant is used mostly for its starchy pseudostems. The stems are scraped for starch, which is then combined with water to become a pulp. The pulp is fermented with yeast and turned into kocho, a type of bread. Each enset plant can produce up to 40 kilograms (88 pounds) of food after reaching maturation in four to five years. Tilahun Amede released a working paper in 2006 studying different cropping systems in the Ethiopian Highlands. In his report, he found that out of 14 major crops in Ethiopia, enset produces the highest yield per hectare and highest energy content per kilogram of edible yield. Its value is not unknown; a study of enset consumption patterns in Ethiopia from the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) found that it makes up 17.5 percent of food intake in rural Ethiopia, and is a vital component of south and southwestern Ethiopian diets.

It is an extremely hardy and versatile crop with high nutritional value: rich in potassium, calcium, and iron, although low in protein. Kocho is often eaten with other food, like kale and kitfo, which creates a high-calorie and highly nutritious meal. In Dr. Amede’s 2006 report, he noted that areas with enset-based farm systems had the lowest rates of Vitamin A deficiency, partly due to the practice of eating kocho with kale. A 2004 report, also by Mr. Amede, concluded that barley-based farm systems would see improved food security by switching over 50 percent of their land to enset, kale and faba beans.

Because it is a perennial crop, enset production is staggered so that the crop contains plants in several different stages of maturation at once. Its deep roots and high water retention make it relatively drought resistant, and the parts of the plant harvested (stems and roots) are more resistant to bad weather than flowering crops. Finally, the staggered pattern of perennial growth makes it harvestable year-round—making it a valuable way to ensure an adequate volume of food all year round.

Enset also helps to increase the long-term sustainability of food production by reducing soil erosion and increasing soil fertility through leaf decomposition and manure application. Leaves and stalks can be used for animal fodder, helping to make fertilization a closed system.

While the plant is extremely valuable for food security, enset is used for more than just food – the fibrous leaves and stalks are used for production of clothing, shelter, and baskets, as well as for ceremonial practices. Parts of the plant are also used to promote maternal health by aiding in stimulating placental discharge, and traditional practitioners use it to help heal broken bones and reduce swelling of joints in both livestock and humans.

One study from Debub University in Hawassa notes that the Ethiopian government has historically promoted research and development of cereal crops, which are more susceptible to natural disasters such as drought, and are typically sold for profit instead of directly generating food security and benefitting local communities. The Tree Against Hunger offers several potential reasons for a focus on cereals instead of enset. Enset production is complex and varies based on location, making it unappealing for many development programs, even for domestic Ethiopian aid initiatives. It also is primarily produced in some of the areas of Ethiopia that are least developed and most difficult to access. These barriers, and the tendency for Western developmental aid to focus on cereal production have limited international extension programs designed for enset. With high cereal prices and low yields, the importance of generating awareness and investing research and resources into enset production grows greater.

by Tess Antrim-Cashin