Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The importance of sweetpotatoes

"Did you know the humble sweetpotato is a member of the morning glory family and is not related to the common potato?"
...asks Elick Guaf. Elick is a senior scientist and agronomist at the Papua New Guinea (PNG) National Agricultural Research Institute (NARI) and is involved in an ACIAR project to improve sweetpotato production.

Sweetpotato is one of the world's most important food crops and an important staple food in PNG. It is valuable in the diet of its 6.3 million people, with more than 60% producing this low-input crop.

Currently, just less than 3 million tonnes are produced annually in PNG, with the total harvest worth an estimated A$700 million. It provides good ground cover, grows on soils with limited fertility and has a short growth period with a high yield. The tuberous root is high in food value, fibre and energy, and
it is rich in sugar and vitamin C. It also contains good quantities of vitamin A, vitamin B, calcium and iron. Sweetpotatoes can be steamed, baked, boiled, roasted or fried.

This makes sweetpotato a high priority for food security but, ominously, it is susceptible to drought and climate change. In both PNG and Solomon Islands, yields have been in decline. Apart from climatic factors such as El NiƱo events, which cause major but temporary falls in production, farmers and scientists have noted a gradual decline in yields and the quality of tubers. The cause is not always obvious.

In response, ACIAR has made it a high priority to introduce and adapt technologies so as to produce consistently high-yielding and nutritious sweetpotato crops.

“Selection and distribution of clean materials is very important and we are also planning to train farmers in best practices in the production of other staple crops under the NARI Information and Knowledge program,” Elick Guaf says.

Sweetpotatoes grown in the lowlands take more than 4 months to mature, but planting early-maturing clean materials and using best management and production practices promote crops to mature in only 3 months with good quality and increased yields.

Nearby, in a sweetpotato trial field, we find Tony Maima and Paul John, two local farmers pulling out weeds from around their sweetpotato crop. “We are very happy to be involved with the sweetpotato trials,” Tony Maima said.

Further information

This story was extracted from the latest edition of Partners in Research for DevelopmentACIAR's flagship publication that summarises results from ACIAR-sponsored research projects. This edition featured a special report on Papua New Guinea. Many of the stories, including this one, were photographed and written by Paul Jones, a photojournalist who has worked for leading newspapers in Australia and the United Kingdom.

Further information on ACIAR's sweetpotato projects in PNG is available here.

By Alexandra Bagnara, ACIAR Communications

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