Issues Magazine

Rescuing Indigenous Pacific Island Crops

Source: 

The Global Crop Diversity Trust (www.croptrust.org)

Crop specialists from nine islands across the Pacific have launched a major effort to preserve the indigenous diversity of foods that are critical to combating diet-related health problems. “Through this project we will bring together 1000 unique samples of Pacific crops for long-term conservation,” said Dr Mary Taylor, Manager of the Centre for Pacific Crops and Trees (CePaCT) at the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC). “Crop collections in the Pacific are very vulnerable; all they need is a disease outbreak or a cyclone to destroy the entire collection. These collections are essential if we are going to maintain traditional Pacific crops for future generations.”

There is little maize, wheat or rice grown in the region. Instead, farmers have cultivated many varieties of root crops and starchy fruits as their staple foods, such as taro, yam, sweet potato, breadfruit and cooking banana, along with coconut, that have been selected over the centuries for their suitability to island environments.

Pacific island crop diversity is especially hard to save because most of the crops do not produce seed. Preserving them requires saving a part of the plant itself. In some parts of the region, national agriculture programs have set up field collections to conserve indigenous varieties, but the collections are constantly threatened by plant disease, harsh weather and poor land management.

More than 100 samples of Fe’i bananas from isolated farms on six islands in French Polynesia will be conserved in a field collection with duplicates sent to CePaCT. Only a few varieties of this orange- and yellow-fleshed banana are still found in farmers’ fields. These bananas are an excellent source of beta-carotene, which is essential for the production of vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency causes blindness, greatly weakened immune systems and even death in infants, and is now common in parts of the Pacific. Good beta-carotene levels in the diet also help protect against non-communicable diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease, which are now at epidemic rates throughout the Pacific Islands.

The Niu Afa coconut variety produces the largest known coconuts. Farmers now rarely cultivate it since hybrid coconuts have become more common. The embryos from the seed of the Niu Afa coconuts have been extracted and taken to be cultured at CePaCT. Eventually they will regenerate and be replanted in the field at multiple sites.

Another unique crop targeted for conservation is the giant swamp taro, a resilient crop that can survive harsh atoll conditions, including sandy saline soils. Once planted, it can be neglected for several years until needed, and hence serves as a “famine food”. When other crops have failed, the edible underground stems of the swamp taro are dug up and can provide ample food for a village for several weeks or months.

Bringing these crop varieties into safe conservation is only the beginning of the story. Increasingly strong community movements that support local foods and encourage the cultivation of local crops are tapping into this diversity.