Imagine a coconut tree surviving in a bottle small enough to hide in the palm of your hand. Amazing, isn't it? Yet this is not Aladdin's cave and no genie's magic but an advancement of science that has made possible the preservation and maintenance of clean, pure varieties of our traditional staple food crops.This is what the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) Centre for Pacific Crops and Trees (CePaCT) team is doing and it has caught the attention of Mr Norman Gibson - Scientific Officer from the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI).
CePaCT is housed under the Land Resources Division (LRD) of SPC. It aims to assist Pacific Island countries and territories (PICTs) to conserve the region's genetic resources by keeping collections of many plants. Priority is given to the region's staple crops: varieties of taro, yam, sweet potato, banana, cassava and breadfruit. They are kept in carefully controlled conditions and survive for many years. The centre houses over 1,000 accessions (each plant is given an identifying accession number).
Mr Gibson was in Fiji recently, attending a one-week regional consultation to evaluate crop diversity as a tool for managing climate variability.
Mr Gibson described the consultation: 'I have listened to the experiences of participants from across the Pacific region, and from that it is evident that we share similar problems in relation to climate change, such as increases in temperature, rainfall, loss of agro-biodiversity, salt water intrusion, extreme weather-related natural disasters, and changes in pest and disease regimes.
'As a result of these increases, there is a window of opportunity for CARDI and SPC through CePaCT to collaborate and share our expertise and experiences,' Gibson said.
'We are already looking at evaluating some of the climate-ready varieties - varieties that have been developed to withstand the extreme climate conditions - developed at CePaCT and we are looking not only at survivability but also at the whole value chain, meaning we evaluate for taste and marketability.'
CARDI aims to set up its own gene bank in the Caribbean region with some of the climate-ready varieties. Mr Gibson explained that the Caribbean faces a lot of problems with the coconut industry and they hope to tap into SPC's expertise to help them out.
'Before coming to this consultation, I knew very little about SPC and the region but now I realise that we have a very similar situation and can easily share lessons learnt to benefit each other,' said Mr Gibson.
According to Dr Mary Taylor - CePaCT Coordinator - a key message from the consultation was that strengthening local food production and consumption can significantly contributes to enhancing climate change resilience, through both increasing the diversity in farmers' fields and improving the nutritional status of Pacific communities.
'The Pacific region, like many other areas in the world, is seeing an unprecedented rise in non-communicable diseases, fuelled to some extent by the availability of imported food, generally in a far more convenient form and cheaper than local foods.'
'Every effort should be made to highlight the important role that local crop diversity can play in addressing the nutrition and health concerns in the region, and as such contributing to the resilience of the community as a whole,' Dr Taylor said.
She added that the wealth of information made available during the consultation highlighted once again the importance of sharing information, in particular for the evaluation of climate tolerant traits. She stressed, however, that the evaluation process should be standardised, so that results can be realistically compared across countries.
It is very important that CePaCT gets information back on the plants they send out so they can discard material that is of no benefit to the countries. At the same time, they should be receiving plant material from countries for the collection, so that it can be widely shared. The CePaCT climate-ready collection is a dynamic collection.
'It relies not only on receiving evaluation information on any accession received from CePaCT to validate the place of that accession in the climate-ready collection, but also on the flow of 'new' germplasm into the Centre,' she added.
It is essential, she elaborated, that crops and varieties evaluated in any climate change-focused projects that show good climate resilience are transferred to CePaCT, where they can be virus-tested and then safely shared with other countries in the Pacific.
The meeting strongly supported the use of farmer household surveys to develop simple, comparable cross-site household level indicators.
The results of such surveys will provide an overview of the farming practices, livelihoods and food security status of the households in these sites and, importantly, will highlights the changes farmers have been making in recent years and why. This approach will be evaluated in a few countries supported by funding from the AusAID International Climate Change Adaptation Initiative.