Monday, 19 May 2014

Rebuilding Samoa’s taro industry

The strong collaborative effort to support the recovery of the Samoan taro industry after devastation by taro leaf blight was showcased during a recent visit by Australia’s Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator the Hon Brett Mason.

When the leaf blight arrived in 1993, taro exports provided over half of Samoa’s foreign exchange earnings and taro was clearly the country’s preferred staple food. Within a year of the disease’s arrival both exports and the local market for taro collapsed. It has taken two decades of concerted international effort to get to the stage where taro is again in surplus on the local market and Samoa can re-enter international export markets.

Senator Brett Mason and Fa’amoetauloa Dr Faale Tumalii
in Samoa

Senator Mason’s visit to the Scientific Research Organisation of Samoa (SROS) was hosted by the Samoan Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, Fa’amoetauloa Dr Faale Tumalii, and the SROS Chief Executive, Tilafono David Hunter.

International collaboration
The fightback began with a region-wide effort, supported by Australian aid and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, to collect  traditional taro varieties from other Pacific islands and South-East Asia, to find ones resistant to the destructive disease. This vital source of resistance was found quite quickly, but in taro that looked and tasted quite different to the varieties preferred in Samoa. So for more than ten years, taro breeder Tolo Iosefa (at that time with the University of the South Pacific) made repeated crosses and tested the results until he had blight-resistant taro that was acceptable to Samoan farmers and consumers.

ACIAR joined the effort in 2008, just as Samoa began to consider resuming exports. ACIAR projects focused on product quality by improving soil health and fertility, and developing cleaner export pathways, to deliver taro free of pests and diseases. David Hunter, then at the University of the South Pacific, was among the soil scientists involved in this effort.

The Taro team - David, Kirifi, Richard (Markham), Tolo
and Kuinimeri
Most recently, ACIAR’s Pacific agribusiness research-for-development initiative (PARDI) has worked with SROS, and especially researcher Kuinimeri Finau, to test the acceptability of the latest varieties to consumers in New Zealand (Samoa’s key export market) and with Tolo Iosefa (now with Samoa’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries) to develop a clean seed system for these market-preferred varieties.

As the export drive has evolved towards a fully commercial operation, the Australian Government-funded Pacific horticulture and agriculture market access (PHAMA) program has worked with a range of partners, in Samoa and in the importing countries, to address market access issues. PHAMA’s National Market Access Coordinator, Kirifi Puono, has coordinated this inter-sectoral effort.
Soil health researchers discuss taro's future prospects
(see Partners article)

An evolving partnership
ACIAR’s partnership model has allowed us to help all along the way, bringing in from Australia and elsewhere the various skills needed to tackle a series of issues – from disease resistance, through production and post-harvest handling, to consumer- and market-acceptance. It was gratifying that all these representatives of the Samoan team were able to meet Senator Mason and explain their part of the story.

ACIAR and its research-for-development partners look forward to being on hand for a while longer, to continue providing technical support as Samoa’s private sector takes the lead in competing in the international market and building export volumes.

By Dr Richard Markham (ACIAR’s Pacific Crops research program manager) and Mandy Gyles (ACIAR Communications)

More information:
ACIAR projects
PC/2007/118 Developing cleaner export pathways for Pacific agriculture commodities, and PC/2009/003 Improving soil health in support of sustainable development in the Pacific are both led by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, Fiji.

Partners articles: Lesson in diversity from Samoa’s taro blight and Rebuilding the Pacific taro industry (p.10-11)

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