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By Samisoni Pareti

SUVA, Fiji (Islands Business Magazine, September) - The future
of a research program aimed at assisting Samoa recover from the debilitating
effects of the taro leaf blight (TLB) is in doubt now that funding will dry up
at the end of the year.

Australia's international aid agency, AusAID, has been funding
the taro research work based at the University of the South Pacific's Alafua
Campus in Apia for the past five years. It is jointly implementing the program
with the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC).

"AusAID has funded this project for two phases, phase 1
(1998-2000) and phase 2 (2001-2003)," explains Tolo Iosefa, the local
scientist coordinating the program. "But funding is due to end in December.
SPC is committed to sustaining certain activities of this project and so it is
hoped that the breeding program in Samoa will continue."

In fact, taro farmers in Samoa will expect nothing else given
that Iosefa's work has not only seen the introduction of several new species of
taro in the country, but it is also assisting greatly in getting what was once a
major exporting commodity back on its feet.

Before the onslaught of the infectious disease in 1993, taro
exports in Samoa peaked at S$9.5 million. The following year, this fell
dramatically to a mere S$0.2 million, and other neighboring islands like Fiji
quickly filled the vacuum as a leading exporter of the product. While AusAID has
been funding the TaroGen program in Alafua, Iosefa said this type of research
had begun much earlier, in 1996.

Since then, the breeding program, which included the germination
of taro plants using tissue culture, had produced ten taro species that could
replace Taro Niue, the local taro species that almost got wiped out by TLB. As a
result of the disease, several exotic taro cultivars from Palau, the Federated
States of Micronesia and the Philippines were reported to have tolerance to TLB.

"After two years of on-farm evaluation, we found out that
Palau-10 is the most resistant to TLB and with the highest yield," Iosefa
said. "Talo Fili (PSB-G2) from the Philippines has the best eating quality
with other Palau cultivars and two of Federated States of Micronesia's cultivars
(Pwetepwet and Toantal) are tolerant to TLB and with acceptable eating

Iosefa was choosing his words carefully. The word in Samoa is
that many still preferred the taste of Taro Niue, lamenting that the new breeds
are still far off the mark when it comes to real taro flavor.

"Our breeding program for TLB resistant varieties is a long
term research exercise. It is still on-going and may take another three to five
years before we find what the Samoan people are looking for." An option
Iosefa and his team at Alafua would like to look at is to continue breeding,
mixing Talo Niue with Palau-10, which is why it is imperative to ensure funding
continues for TaroGen. In 2000 and again in 2001, TaroGen through Samoa's
Ministry of Agriculture released six "improved lines" of taro.

"Farmers liked it," said Iosefa. "USP's taro
improvement project also released several clones for farmers to test under their
local environment and management."

One of the benefits of the breeding program is the improvement
in the tissue bank for Alafua's Tissue Culture Unit. Anthony Palupi, manager of
the unit, said his unit duplicated the SPC's collection, and is concentrating on
improving the multiplication rate of taro suckers.

From a sucker, Palupi said his unit could extract tissue for at
least 70 to 200 new suckers.

Space has become a problem for the tissue unit, and SPC provided
funding for the provision of a new sterile kitchen and bigger storage. The
devastation caused by taro blight in Samoa had raised the need for island
countries to observe strict quarantine regulations and move away from intensive

"There shouldn't be a reliance on one variety for the
domestic and export markets," said Iosefa.

There's also the need for genetic diversity in the region so
breeding programs should be continued. We also should not just use Pacific
germplasm. Exotic germplasm including those from Asia should be introduced.
Genetic diversity in the Pacific is relatively limited. Because of this need for
diversity, another major lesson learnt is we have to have germplasm exchanges
between the countries and from outside the region. "But this germplasm
exchanges should respect the quarantine regulations of the countries."

September 4, 2003

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