Vulnerability of Pacific crops addressed by CePaCT
Valeria Saena Tuia, Acting Officer in Charge of Genetic Resources at the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) Centre for Pacific Crops and Trees (CePaCT) explained that nothing demonstrates 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.
In fact, CePaCT itself, which is a part of SPC’s Land Resources Division, has developed as a result of the taro leaf blight.
It is a regional germplasm centre, holding more than 1000 examples or ‘accessions’ of taro from the Asia–Pacific region.
The 1993 taro leaf blight wiped out Samoa’s crop for export markets, the country’s main earner of foreign exchange at that time, and the loss of the staple food crop negatively impacted the diets of the Samoan population.
Although people substituted crops such as banana, breadfruit, cassava and yams for taro, there was an increase in the import of polished white rice and white flour, which have less nutritional value. The loss of the taro leaves, which are rich in vitamins and minerals such as folic acid and potassium, had additional negative impact on the diets of the population.
In 1994, at the Alafua Campus of the University of the South Pacific (USP), Samoa embarked upon a program to screen and evaluate exotic taro varieties in the quest to rehabilitate the country’s taro crop.
This involved the development of complementary national and regional programs: the USP Alafua Campus Taro Improvement Project (TIP), and the SPC Taro Genetic Resources Conservation and Utilization (TaroGen) project.
And since the late 1990s, it has also involved the efforts of the taro breeder at the USP Alafua Campus, Tolo Iosefa.
‘Not only do we have Pacific taro, but thanks to Asian–Pacific countries such as Philippines, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia sharing their taro resources, we have been able to cross-breed with Asian taro. Mr. Iosefa has incorporated the cross-bred taro into his participatory breeding program, in which farmers return the best output from their harvest to the program.
‘In turn, these “best picks” are returned to CePaCT for virus testing and safe distribution to other countries, regionally and globally,’ 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, which, combined with the good work being carried out by Mr Iosefa, has seen the rehabilitation of Samoa’s taro crop.
‘As well as ongoing work with taro, CePaCT is a germplasm storehouse for crops that are culturally significant to individual countries, and is a research center investigating, amongst other things, climate-ready crops that can withstand changes in salinity or droughts,’ concluded Ms. Tuia