The Nigerian yam isn’t like the sweet orange root adorned with brown sugar and marshmallows on Thanksgiving. It’s a much larger white tuber measuring the length of an adult’s arm), that actually leans on the savory side. Also unlike the orange variety, these yams are at the center of Nigerian cuisine, eaten multiple times a day. And they’re in trouble.
NPR reports that Nigeria is having problems yielding yam crops due to viral conditions. Unfortunately, yams’ genetics lend themselves to disease. According to NPR, they’re a “clonal” root, which means each planted yam clones itself a new crop. If a bad yam gets replanted enough, crops will be weak and more susceptible to viruses. Yams are traditionally planted in this manner, using old yams to germinate new ones.
That’s not to say there isn’t a market of farmers selling healthy yams. There is, but buying seeds from an outside sourced indicates a farmer’s ineptitude and is considered taboo. Until now, that is. Healthy yams can sell for as little as 25 cents apiece but can be valued as high as $10. Scientists at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria are now taking further steps to mass-produce yams through aeroponics. Like hydroponics, aeroponics doesn’t require seeds to be planted in soil. And instead of in water, they’re grown in air.
The $14 billion yam industry also faces potential wrath from climate change, which could mean more drought-like conditions and increased desertification. Thankfully, this yam is drought-resistant and can stay dormant underground until it receives water, but the same can’t be said about viruses. Until more Nigerian farmers overcome the cultural taboo of purchasing healthy yams from the market, the industry could face more turmoil.