My son is travelling around Asia on a gap year. On one overnight bus journey he found himself sitting next to an ecologist studying the impact of the cassava industry on the environment.

This was new to me, so I dug into it. I discovered that cassava root is a cash crop grown all over Asia, particularly in Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar. It’s processed to create tapioca flour or starch, which are used in food, paper and toothpaste.

Demand for tapioca has skyrocketed, and that’s led to farmers pushing into virgin land – usually forests, and often protected areas – to expand their cassava production. They clear the forest by cutting trees and plants down and burning them.

This burning is causing horrific levels of air pollution right across Laos and Thailand, with thousands of people falling sick with respiratory diseases. The massive haze of toxic smoke covering the skies in the dry season also has a negative impact on tourism.

Processing cassava uses huge amounts of energy and water. The wastewater is heavily polluted and often dumped back into watercourses, contaminating drinking sources.

The feedback loop is undeniable. Growing and processing cassava leads to the destruction of biodiversity and human ill-health, and contributes to climate change through deforestation and intensive energy use.

It isn’t happening on our doorstep, but our lifestyles are driving it. Processed cassava (tapioca) is used as a binding or thickening agent in many ultra processed foods. If you’re a fan of bubble tea, those popping pearls are cassava products. If you buy a burger, it’s probably held together with tapioca flour or starch.

Our appetite for processed food only seems to grow more rapacious, but we need to consider its impact on lives across the world. Finding out about cassava has only made me more convinced that we need to turn our backs on processed food – for our own health and that of the planet.

 

 – Liz barling

This article was first published in the Keynsham Voice – May 2024