The Centre for Pacific Crops and Trees (CePaCT)

Plant genetic resources (PGR) are the raw material of sustainable development through more productive, while at the same time environmentally sound, agriculture and forestry. PGR remain the key to meeting future food needs. Yet these resources are disappearing, with uniform crop varieties rapidly replacing the local landraces cultivated by farmers for millennia, and traditional crops being abandoned as urban migration gathers pace and food habits change in the wake of globalization. The Pacific has been no exception to this trend. These problems and the dangers posed by climate change and pest and disease outbreaks were recognized by the Pacific Heads of Agriculture and Livestock Programmes when in 1996 they resolved ‘to put in place, both in their countries and through regional cooperation, policies to conserve, protect and best utilize their plant genetic resources’. There was a consensus that conservation could be best achieved by regional cooperation, making better use of scarce resources.

The establishment of the then Regional Germplasm Centre (RGC) was the initial response by SPC to this recommendation. The RGC began operations in September 1998. Funding for the establishment of the RGC was provided by the Australian government through the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), and the European Union. The development of the RGC and in particular the establishment of the taro collection was a core component of the AusAID funded Taro Genetic Resources: Conservation and Utilization (TaroGen) project. In 2007 the RGC changed its name to the Centre for Pacific Crops and Trees (CePaCT), both to reflect the importance of trees to food and nutritional security, and income generation in the Pacific, and the role of CePaCT within the international PGR network.

The aim of CePaCT is to assist Pacific Island countries and territories (PICTs) to conserve the region’s genetic resources, and to provide access to the diversity they need, when they need it. Conservation is the core business of the centre, with priority given to the region’s staple crops: taro, yam, sweet potato, banana, cassava and breadfruit. The centre houses over 2,000 accessions in all. The taro collection is particularly unique, being the largest collection of taro diversity globally – over 1,000 accessions. Efforts are currently focused on building up regional collections of banana, breadfruit and yam in recognition of the diversity that exists in these crops in the Pacific. This diversity needs to be conserved, evaluated and made available to countries so that farmers can use this resource to improve food production and income generation. The centre not only conserves the region’s valuable genetic diversity, but also undertakes the important mission of distributing it, making it available for growers throughout the Pacific to use. Quarantine services throughout the Pacific region recognise that virus-tested plantlets (tissue cultures) are a safe method for importing plant material. In 2009 CePaCT distributed over 8,000 sweet potato, banana, cassava, yam, Irish potato, taro, breadfruit, vanilla, Alocasia and Xanthosoma plants to PICTs for evaluation and use.

The Centre also has a strong research programme. Currently research activities include the development of micropropagation protocols for sandalwood and pandanus; cryopreservation of aroids; salt tolerance studies on swamp taro and taro virus research. In the past CePaCT has worked with USP in supporting Masters in kava micropropagation and taro cryopreservation, and with USP and QUT in supporting a PhD in somatic embryogenesis.