The Crop That Can Feed the World?

An enset farmer tends to his crops in Ethiopia. (International Livestock Research Institute)

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 The Christensen Fund, 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.

Global temperatures are expected to rise 4°C above pre-industrial levels within this century, which will likely harm agricultural production and increase hunger and poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to a recent report from the World Bank. In fact, warming of 1.2-1.9°C—which is expected to occur by 2050—is projected to increase undernourishment in Sub-Saharan Africa by 25-90 percent from present levels. 

Enset (Ensete ventricosum), also known as the false banana plant, is a relatively understudied crop, but it may provide a solution to the agricultural challenges of a warming planet. Enset supports 10 million people in southern Ethiopia and is known as the tree against hunger, due to its resistance against drought and soil erosion. In fact, interviews conducted with Ethiopian farmers suggest that enset-dependent populations have never suffered from a famine. 

Enset’s resistance to the agricultural stresses of a warming planet is largely attributable to the fact that enset fields do not experience soil erosion. The accumulation of litter from the enset plant creates heavy mulch and soil organic matter, which increases the fertility of the soil. Additionally, enset’s perennial leaf canopy improves soil quality by decreasing soil temperatures, and, in doing so, decreases rates of organic matter decomposition. Research from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) suggests that enset fields are far more sustainable in the long run than the fields of annual crops in Ethiopia, and, because of their ability to improve soil quality, enset fields can have be continuously productive for decades, if not centuries. 

Additionally, once enset is established, it can tolerate occasional years of drought or a short rainy season. In fact, enset fields have survived droughts that damaged annual cereal crop fields. Also, enset fields require almost no tending once they are established, further contributing to the crop's long-term sustainability. 

In addition to this long-term durability, enset fields are also able to sustain high population densities, which is increasingly important as the world population grows. The number of people living in developing countries is projected to rise from 5.9 billion in 2013 to 8.2 billion in 2050 and to 9.6 billion people in 2100, according to the U.N. Population Division. The use of land for enset production is commonly regarded as a response to higher population densities, due to enset’s high carrying capacity. While the human carrying capacities for different cropping systems are difficult to compare due to a lack of data, researchers speculate that the carrying capacity of enset is greater than other crops for the same agroecology and inputs. In fact, a study by Dr. Tadesse Kippie Kanshie at Dilla University reported that the carrying capacity of land planted to enset is around 0.2 hectares for a household of seven people, opposed to 1.5 hectares of land with annual grain.

Enset currently feeds some of the most densely populated agricultural communities in the world through a sustainable and reliable process. More research is needed in order to determine if this crop can be grown in other environments and climates in order to alleviate malnourished communities around the world. 

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