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were invited to take part, as long they agreed
to provide feedback to the project on the
performance of the trial varieties.
Over the project’s 10 years, more than 100
farmers have been involved and several thousand
different taro plants have been evaluated.
Today, taro is back on the menu in Samoa
and small-scale exports recently began again.
“ We have essentially solved the taro leaf blight
problem in Samoa,” mr Iosefa says. “ We have 100
or more resistant varieties out in the fields.”
The breeding program is continuing, now
funded by SPc, but the focus is changing
to introduce additional traits of value to
farmers, such as drought resistance and higher
The crisis in Samoa also provided the
impetus to build and consolidate a regional
collection of taro genetic resources to support
this and other breeding programs in the region.
The Taro Genetic Resources: conservation and
Utilization project (TaroGen) began in 1998 and
was funded by AusAID.
more than 2,200 different accessions (or
samples) of taro were collected from across the
Pacific region by the TaroGen project. The next
step was to reduce this large number to a more
manageable core collection, and this was one
of the tasks of an AcIAR-funded project that ran
from 1998 to 2001.
“A core collection contains the maximum
amount of genetic diversity within the smallest
number of samples,” Dr Taylor explains. “ This makes
long-term conservation much more feasible,
particularly where resources are limited. And
because core collections are well characterised, it
also promotes use and exchange.”
Tissue samples were sent to the University of
Queensland for molecular analysis. This allowed
the collection to be reduced to 196 accessions.
This core collection is housed at cePacT.
The results of this painstaking work
provided insights into the origins of Pacific taro.
According to the DNA analysis, most if not all
the taro grown across the Pacific originated in
melanesia, and particularly Papua New Guinea
and Solomon Islands.
“ Taro would have been carried by canoe
eastwards from these islands and gradually
introduced across the Pacific region,” Dr
Taylor says. “But because taro is vegetatively
propagated—reproduced from cuttings rather
than seeds—there was little opportunity for
new varieties to develop. That’s why we’ve
ended up with limited diversity.”
The solution to the leaf blight problem
was to look outside the region for resistance
genes—to South-East Asia, which is believed to
be a second centre of diversity for taro.
“ We crossed our preferred Samoan varieties
with varieties from Indonesia and malaysia that
had leaf blight resistance,” mr Iosefa says. “In that
way we could keep the traits of our familiar and
locally adapted varieties, and integrate disease
resistance. It took time and a lot of work, but
ultimately it was successful.”
The AcIAR-funded project also addressed
the need for virus-free plant tissue—a
prerequisite for moving germplasm between
countries without inadvertently spreading
disease. A team based at Queensland University
of Technology characterised all known taro
viruses and then developed specific tests for
each one. Using these tests, the team then
carried out virus surveys, testing samples from
across the Pacific region to learn about virus
distribution. This knowledge and the new
virus tests have opened up the way for safe
movement of taro germplasm.
Samoa’s disaster serves as a warning to other
taro-growing countries that have not yet faced
leaf blight, including Fiji, Vanuatu, Tonga, the
Project leaders collaborate. Mike Smith, leader of the Soil Health Project, and
Roy Masumdu, leader of the Cleaner Pathways Project, in Samoa.
Staff from the Samoa Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries prepare taro
for export. Here a staff member is shown trimming roots.
cook Islands and Niue. These countries can now
arm themselves ahead of a possible outbreak.
Fiji in particular is vulnerable as its taro export
industry—currently worth about A$10 million a
year—depends on the same varieties that were
wiped out in Samoa.
To protect the region’s food security, the core
collection is available to plant breeders across
the Pacific region and beyond.
Samoa learned the hard way, but the
effective response to the crisis means that the
country is now much less vulnerable to other
challenges that may lie ahead.
“ Taro is such an important crop here, we
need to safeguard it into the future,” mr Iosefa
says. “ To do that, we’ll be keeping diversity in
the fields.” n
Fiji, Kiribati, Samoa, Solomon Islands,
PROJECT: PC/2008/044: Pacific Agribusiness
Research for Development Initiative
CONTACT: David Shearer, Agribusiness Research
Program Manager, email@example.com
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