Helen Briggs – Science reporter
posted on 01/24/2022 11:08
(credit: RBG Kew)
Researchers say the plant Ensete ventricosum, native to Ethiopia, can be a lifesaver in the face of climate change. Also called the “Ethiopia banana”, ensete is almost unknown outside the country, where it is used to make porridge and bread.
Growing this ‘fake banana’ – a close relative of the world’s most common banana species – has the potential to feed more than 100 million people in a world affected by global warming, says a study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
Ensete is a staple food in Ethiopia, where around 20 million people depend on it for food, but it is not widely cultivated elsewhere. Research, however, suggests the plant can be grown over a much larger area in Africa because other wild species in the same family – which are not considered edible – grow as far south as South Africa.
“This is a culture that can play a very important role in food security and sustainable development,” said Wendawek Abebe of Hawassa University in Awasa, Ethiopia.
The fruit of the plant, similar to a banana, is inedible. But the stems and roots can be used to make porridge and bread.
Using agricultural research and modeling work, the scientists predicted the potential reach of ensete over the next four decades.
They pointed out that growing the plant could feed more than 100 million people and increase food security in Ethiopia and other African countries, including Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda.
Researcher James Borrell, from the Royal Botanic Gardens in the UK, said that planting ensete as a reserve crop for times of scarcity of other products could help increase food security.
“It has some really unusual characteristics that make it absolutely unique as a culture,” he said. “You plant anytime, you reap anytime, and it’s evergreen. That’s why they call it the tree against hunger.”
Ethiopia is an important center of crop domestication in Africa, home to coffee and many other plants domesticated by man.
Climate change is expected to seriously affect crop yields and distribution across the world and especially in Africa.
There is growing interest in finding new plants to feed the world, given our dependence on some staple crops. Almost half of all the calories we eat come from three kinds of food – rice, wheat and corn.
“We need to diversify the plants we use globally, because all our eggs are in a very small basket right now,” says Borrell.
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