|Vulnerability of Pacific crops addressed by Centre of Pacific Crops and Trees (CePaCT)|
|Tuesday, 14 August 2012 13:41|
‘Nothing has demonstrated the vulnerability of traditional Pacific Island food crops more than the impact of the taro leaf blight that decimated Samoa’s taro crop in 1993,’ says 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).
‘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 warns.
The intensive monocropping and reliance on one popular variety of taro (Talo Samoa, also known as Talo Niue) for the local and export markets, as well as the susceptibility of all the local varieties to disease, exacerbated the spread of the taro leaf blight (TLB). Within months, the taro industry was wiped out, causing the loss of foreign exchange and millions of tala, as well as the loss of a staple food crop and a cultural icon.
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 the Philippines, Palau and Federated States of Micronesia, enabling farmers to try to cultivate taro again for local consumption. However, there was still a demand for more tolerant varieties and taro that tasted more like the popular Samoan variety.
Then, in the mid 1990s, Samoa’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAFF) and the University of the South Pacific (Alafua Campus), embarked on a collaborative programme through the SPC/Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) Taro Genetic Resources Conservation and Utilisation (TaroGen) project to cross local tolerant taro varieties with exotic varieties.
‘In its early days, CePaCT’s work was in response to the crisis,’ said Ms Tuia. ‘The majority of all Pacific taro genetic resources were collected under the TaroGen project, being characterised, DNA fingerprinted and virus indexed.
MAFF released new varieties and thousands of new taro seedlings were dispersed to farmers. ‘The good work carried out by Mr Iosefa, Manager of the Taro Improvement Programme at USP’s Alafua Campus, the staff of MAFF, and partners of SPC and other agencies that contributed to this work, has seen the rehabilitation of Samoa’s taro crop,’ said Ms Tuia.
Later, with the inclusion of new diversity obtained by CePaCT from the EU Taro Network for Southeast Asia and Oceania (TANSAO) in 2004–2005, new, more tolerant varieties were produced at Alafua in collaboration with MAFF.
Ms Tuia explained that the new generation of taro hybrids is more vibrant than previous hybrids and is locally known as talo ta’amu (resembles the Alocasia) or talo laui’ila (taro with waxy leaves), a characteristic of the Asian taro used as parent material.
Samoan farmers trial the new varieties and send the “best varieties’ to CePaCT for virus testing and safe distribution to the rest of the Pacific region and SPC project partners.
Thus CePaCT, a part of the SPC Land Resources Division, plays an important supporting role in agricultural development in the region. It holds 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.
The Centre’s ongoing breeding programmes in collaboration with USP and some of the countries 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 region are better prepared to face any future possible outbreaks of TLB, as well as climate variability. And with the new diversity of taro growing there, Samoa’s narrow genetic base has been broadened.
‘As well as ongoing work with taro, CePaCT is a germplasm storehouse of crops that are culturally significant to individual countries. It is also a research centre, investigating, amongst other things, climate-ready crops that can withstand changes in salinity and drought,’ concluded Ms Tuia.