Vulnerability of Pacific crops addressed by CePaCT

Published: Tue 31 Jul 2012 04:21 PM
30TH JULY 2012
Vulnerability of Pacific crops addressed by CePaCT
Valerie Saena Tuia, Officer in Charge of the Genetic Resources at the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) Centre for Pacific Crops and Trees (CePaCT), explains that nothing demonstrates the vulnerability of traditional Pacific Island food crops more than the impact of the taro leaf blight (TLB) that decimated Samoa’s taro crop in 1993.
‘A narrow genetic base, such as that of Samoa’s taro, indicates that many of our traditional taro resources and crops are particularly vulnerable to diseases,’ she says.
The intensive monocropping and reliance on one popular variety (Talo Samoa, also known as Talo Niue) for the local and export markets, and the susceptibility of all the local varieties exacerbated the spread of the disease, and within months, the whole taro industry had been totally wiped out, causing losses of millions of tala, losses in foreign exchange, loss of a staple food crop, as well as loss of a cultural icon.
In fact, CePaCT itself, (known then as the Regional Germplasm Centre), which is a part of the SPC Land Resources Division, played an important supporting role for agricultural development in the region, which was further strengthened as a result of the taro leaf blight.
CePaCT is a regional germplasm centre, holding more than 1000 taro accessions from the Asia-Pacific region as well as TLB tolerant varieties acquired from breeding programmes in Samoa, Papua New Guinea and Hawaii.
Although people substituted crops such as banana, breadfruit, cassava and yams for taro, there was an increase in imports of polished white rice and white flour, which have less nutritional value. Taro leaves, a food source rich in vitamins and minerals such as folic acid and potassium, were also lost, which had an additional negative impact on the diets of the population.
In the early years of the blight, Samoa received taro varieties from Philippines, Palau and Federated States of Micronesia, enabling farmers to try to cultivate taro again for local consumption. However, there was still demand for more tolerant varieties and taro that tasted more like the popular Samoan variety.
In the mid 1990s, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAFF) and the Alafua Campus of the University of the South Pacific, Samoa embarked on a collaborative programme through the SPC/Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) Taro Genetic Resources Conservation and Utilisation (TaroGen) project to breed local tolerant varieties with exotic taro varieties that already existed at the time.
MAFF had released new varieties, and later with the inclusion of new diversity from Asia in 2004–2005 – obtained by SPC from the EU Taro Network for Southeast Asia and Oceania – new, more tolerant varieties were produced at USP in collaboration with MAFF.
Ms Tuia explained that the new generation of taro hybrids produced are more vibrant than previous hybrids and are locally known as Talo Ta’amu (resembles the Alocasia) or Talo Laui’ila (taro with waxy leaves), a characteristic of Asian taro used as parent material.
Thousands of new taro seedlings were dispersed to farmers using a participatory approach. The best varieties selected by farmers are shared with the rest of the network.
Tolo Iosefa, Manager of the Taro Improvement Programme based at USP, is using this approach, which has proved successful in getting farmers involved in the selection process and in getting the material out quickly to other farmers.
‘In turn, these “best varieties” are returned to CePaCT for virus testing and for safe distribution to other countries vulnerable to TLB,’ explained Ms Tuia.
‘The impact of the blight was enormous,’ said Ms Tuia. ‘In its early days, CePaCT’s work was in response to that crisis. The majority of all Pacific taro genetic resources were collected under the TaroGen project, being characterised, DNA fingerprinted and virus indexed. The core collection is conserved at CePaCT.
‘This, combined with the good work being carried out by Mr Iosefa and the staff of MAFF, and all partners of SPC and other agencies that contributed to this work, has seen the rehabilitation of Samoa’s taro crop,’ said Ms Tuia.
Samoa’s narrow genetic base has been broadened with the new diversity of taro growing in Samoa. The ongoing breeding programmes continue to produce varieties that are more tolerant, not only to TLB, but also to other climate extremes (drought, waterlogging, salinity), which will ensure that Samoa and other countries in the Pacific are better prepared to face any future possible outbreaks of TLB as well as climate variability.
‘As well as ongoing work with taro, CePaCT is a germplasm storehouse of crops that are culturally significant to individual countries, and is a research centre investigating, amongst other things, climate-ready crops that can withstand changes in salinity or drought,’ concluded Ms Tuia.

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