Yuca, manioc, tapioca … it’s still one versatile tuber

Cassava (manihot esculenta) is getting a lot of attention as a pro-poor biofuel that could be a comer in the international ethanol market. But the tropical plant’s starchy root has myriad uses and figures prominently in many countries’ export trade.

A basic ingredient in the cuisines of Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia (especially southeast), Africa, the Indian Subcontinent … the shorter list would be where it’s not a staple. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN, cassava is the staple food of nearly a billion people in 105 countries.

Mostly temperate-zoned U.S. is a net importer of cassava. You can trace the diaspora of immigrants to the U.S. from around the world by reading the bill-of-lading trade data on cassava-based food products. Costa Rica is the source for 88% of fresh or dried cassava imported by the U.S., followed (distantly) by Thailand, Vietnam, and Brazil. But search for “yuca” and the Asian nations give way to Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and other Latin American countries in trade that follows South and Central American emigres to ports of entry and distributors along the east coast. Search for “attieke” (a couscous of cassava popular in Cote d’Ivoire) and “garri” (as similar preparations are called in Nigeria, Ghana, and Cameroon) and gauge rising demand for a taste of Africa in urban markets. Asian sources move to the top of the list for “tapioca” (noodles, syrups and the pearls that go into Vietnamese bubble tea).

U.S. imports are likely to get an added boost as cassava flour (also listed on BoLs as tapioca flour) is marketed as a gluten-free alternative to wheat flours.

Cassava is also the cheapest known source of starch, and Thailand is where 80% of the world’s cassava starch exports originate. Food-grade starch is used as a thickener, filler and binder in food processing, in confectionary and in pharmaceuticals. Industrial starch is used in manufacturing more than 300 products. The paper industry is among the largest consumers of the stuff, according to Thailand’s Tapioca Starch Association, with the starch content of some papers running as high as 10%. Starch is also used in adhesives, glues, and building materials.

In addition to its potential as a biofuel, cassava starch promises to find extensive application in earth-friendly bioplastics, such as the tapioca-polymer resin used in the Ecoplas shopping bag that biodegrades in less than a year. Thailand aims to leverage its leadership in cassava starch to become Asia’s bioplastic hub. It currently ranks third (after China and Japan) among Asian producers of bioplastics. Meanwhile, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam are also attracting investment in cassava starch production projects.

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