Monday, 16 January 2017 10:07 AM

Preserving Staple Crops in the Islands

PACIFIC island crop diversity is especially hard to maintain because most of the crops do not produce seeds. Preserving them requires saving a part of the plant itself.

In some parts of the region like Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia, 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. The project to conserve some of the indigenous food diversity in the Micronesia islands needs more individual household involvement.

The Centre for Pacific Crops and Trees or CePaCT of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community provides a safe home for crop varieties that may be in danger. CePaCT is partnering with public institutes in French Polynesia, the FSM, Fiji, Kiribati, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. They are replanting or gathering crop varieties unique to their islands, documenting their characteristics and sending duplicate plants for safekeeping to the laboratory at CePaCT.

Breadfruit, for example, has been an important staple crop and component of traditional agroforestry systems in the Pacific for more than 3,000 years. This species originated in the South Pacific and was spread throughout Oceania by intrepid islanders settling the numerous islands of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia.

Artocarpus mariannensis (dugdug or chebiei) grows wild in Palau and the Mariana Islands and has long been cultivated throughout Micronesia, especially on the atoll islands. It naturally hybridized with Artocarpus altilis and the numerous hybrids are only found in Micronesia.

A recent Pacific Food Summit stressed the need to turn back to local foods to address diet-related health issues that are linked to a movement away from traditional staples. Today, life expectancy in some Pacific islands is decreasing because of diet-related illnesses. Diabetes rates are among the highest in the world, reaching up to 44 percent in the Tokelau atolls, compared to around 8 percent in the United States.

Islanders should be encouraged to cultivate many varieties of root crops and starchy fruits such as taro, yam, sweet potato, breadfruit and cooking banana along with coconuts.

Breadfruit alone is a multipurpose tree which is easy to grow, beneficial to the environment, and can produce an abundance of nutritious, tasty fruit. It also provides construction materials, medicine, fabric, glue, insect repellent, animal feed and more. The trees begin bearing in three to five years and are productive for many decades. This tree of bread has the potential to play a significant role in providing healthy food in the tropics.

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