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Root and tuber crops under microscope

The 2016 World Conference on Root and Tuber Crops (WCRTC) has recommended that a value chain approach driven by appropriate policies is imperative to support root and tuber crops-based agri-food enterprises. These policies should integrate core end-user oriented research agendas in the main development pathways. The approach will build root and tuber crops (RTCs) into a more diverse and sustainable agri-food system to ensure food security among dependant producers and consumers around the world.

With regards to research and development (R&D), WCRTC has indicated emphasis on improving breeding strategies for RTCs to enhance genetic resources and quality seed, development of resilient crops in the face of climate change, and adding value to nutrient rich foods. This can be implemented through the following:

• Enhanced genetic resources through molecular breeding and marker assisted selection for the improvement of RTCs breeding and shortening cycle selection. Enhanced genetic resources will add value to gene banks through conservation research, linking genes or traits to gene bank accessions, and increased characterisation of diversity - all of which will guide varietal and trait development for greater uptake and impact.

• Development of productive varieties with novel breeding targets, methods and processes that will be applied to accelerate genetic gains for key traits across all RTCs. The use of systematic selective breeding complemented by genetic modification and genomic selection has proven to be a useful alternative method for the introduction of new desirable traits with improved outputs and efficiency. Development of new varieties need to consider the use of participatory and gender-sensitive research tools to understand the traits and criteria that stakeholders prefer when adopting or rejecting varieties. End-user knowledge will guide breeding processes to ensure that novel breeding targets are integrated. This strategy also aims to develop and make available good-quality planting materials of diverse, advanced RTC varieties that meet the needs and preferences of value chain actors.

• Through the strategy of developing resilient crops, yield gaps of RTCs vulnerable to biotic and abiotic threats will be closed; pest and pathogen movement will be monitored; and risks and design responses for new threats will be assessed. It also aims to develop climate-resilient and ecologically sustainable production systems; thereby strengthening food security, improving natural resource quality and ecosystem.

• The nutrient rich food and value added strategy aims to harness the nutritional potential of RTCs by expanding their utilisation and adding value through postharvest innovation. This will require researchers collaborating with breeders to design and develop nutrient-dense RTCs through biofortification, and promoting other preferred traits for the market. This strategy will create a multiplier effect in that, niche markets will be developed to strengthen demand-pull and accelerate uptake of nutritious and profitable varieties; address the perishable nature of RTCs through improved storage, transportability and diversified use; promote gender- equitable development and youth empowerment; improve postharvest processing methods integrating technical, economic and environmental aspects to enhance the sustainability and profitability of the products.

In PNG RTCs are important dietary staples and their contribution to food security is well recognized. Traditionally, sweet potatoes, taro, yams, sago and bananas were the staple foods providing much of the calorie requirements of the peoples diet. However, sweet potato recently has become more dominant, particularly in the lowlands. Other RTCs gaining popularity in many parts of the country include Irish potato and cassava.

Most RTCs are primarily grown for human consumption and a certain amount is fed to livestock, but very little is processed. However, the productivity of RTCs is almost static, reflecting the agro-technological and socio-economic constraints to production, while consumption is challenged by high imports of cheap cereal products.

R&D on RTCs receive little attention compared to other established commodity crops like coffee, oil palm, coconut and cocoa. A change in government policies on agricultural development, trade and research is required in order to give adequate attention to RTCs and support their development.

The following is a proposed guide for R&D organisations in PNG:

• Invest in the value chain and end-user oriented research approaches, to support RTC-based agri-food enterprises of smallholder producers;

• More research emphasis on improving breeding strategies by integrating modern breeding tools for RTCs. Enhancing genetic resources will allow for the development of improved consumer preferred varieties, with climate resilience and added nutritional values (via biofortification);

• Build the capacity of RTC scientists to address critical gaps; • Invest in infrastructure development for RTC research and value addition; and

• Encourage and provide a platform for engaging a broad range of partners such as NARS, national programs, private sector companies and NGOs.

The two main areas where RTCs can make an increased contribution to food security in PNG are through the following:

1) Improve productivity of RTCs to increase food security of rural producers and contribute to their income through research on improving local planting materials and cultivation practices, Research will need to consider the differing requirements of the traditional production systems and the commercial sector.

2) Improving the quality of the rural and urban diet. While such improvements can theoretically be achieved through other means, there are advantages in linking nutritional programmes with the production of appropriate local food items from RTCs.

RTCs have the potential in improving domestic cash flow and gross domestic product (GDP). There is scope for export of these crops to other countries of the Pacific region and worldwide. The costs and benefits of promoting RTCs with a view to increasing income per capita and GDP in the region need careful consideration before new policies and programmes could be devised.

This first WCRTC was held in Nanning, China, early this year and was attended by two NARI officers in crop improvement - Boney Wera and Cyril Atung.

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