PACIFIC TARO STUDY SHOWS MAJOR EXPORT POTENTIAL

News Release

Secretariat of the Pacific Community Noumea, New Caledonia April 25, 2011

Talo is one of the few fresh commodities for which Pacific Islands countries have been able to achieve significant levels of exports, with 10,000 to 12,000 tons exported annually (valued at approximately US$6 million).

Fiji currently accounts for 95percent of these exports, with Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu making up the rest.

However, there has been little or no growth in export volume in recent years. Why?

A new study released by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community’s Facilitating Agricultural Commodity Trade (FACT) project finds that "quarantine import protocols and their application are a major factor determining the ability of [Pacific Islands countries] to maintain and expand taro exports’.

The Pacific Islands Taro Market Access Scoping Study was initiated by the European Union-funded project, which works to increase the volume, value and diversity of Pacific Islands agricultural and forestry exports.

This is in response to the high rejection rate of taro exported to Australia during the first half of 2010.

A group of agricultural and biosecurity experts, led by Dr Andrew McGregor, reviewed the taro import protocols for the four major markets for Pacific Islands talo (United States, Japan, Australia and New Zealand) together with their justifications, applications and impacts on taro exports and found that exports could be expanded considerably if quarantine protocol regimes were reformed and there were parallel and substantial improvements in taro production, export certification and marketing pathways.

"Pacific Islands taro exports have the potential to more than double if the product can be made more competitive in terms of price and quality. However, the Australian market for fresh taro may no longer be economically viable for Pacific Islands exporters if the current quarantine requirements for devitalization (to prevent propagation) remains in place," says the study.

Devitalization refers to treatment that ensures plant and any pests it harbors cannot reproduce.

The study also notes that "increased taro exports would result in significant benefits for large numbers of low-income rural people with the Fijian, Samoan, Tongan and Vanuatu taro industries offering the greatest potential in the Pacific, in terms of exports."

The major findings with respect to the Australian taro market access are:

The current import protocol requiring devitalization made the export of fresh taro to Australia a high risk business. This caused Fiji taro to become non-competitive on the Australian market and greatly limited market expansion.

No scientific basis was found to justify the current taro devitalization regulation.

The United States (including Hawaii) and Japan have significantly larger domestic taro industries than Australia and do not require devitalization for taro imports. The World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS) includes principles of consistency and equivalence in phytosanitary measures and their application that are seen as relevant in this respect.

Fiji, Tonga and Vanuatu have a well documented favorable taro disease status based on the absence of viral and fungal diseases of quarantine concern. Australia, compared with the Pacific Islands countries has a significantly less well documented disease status for taro.

A good case can be made for these three countries to be considered a pest free/low prevalence area under international SPS standards.

There is evidence that devitalization is a major underlying factor in the high incidence of corm rot recently experienced in Fiji taro exported to Australia.

The current devitalization procedures are of questionable efficacy in terms of preventing propagation and the spread of disease.

The major findings of the study with respect to the New Zealand taro market access are:

The high rate of fumigation required for imported taro due to the interception of nematodes is not justified because the majority of nematodes found on Pacific Islands taro pose no threat to New Zealand agriculture.

Consequently, these commonly intercepted nematodes associated with Fiji taro need to be identified and their risk assessed. If they are found to be of low or no risk, they should be reclassified as non-regulated pests, eliminating the need for fumigation.

If this step were taken, the quarantine status of these nematodes would in essence return to the original pre-2005 status, under which they were accepted as species of no quarantine concern requiring no action.

Reform of quarantine import protocols is a necessary requirement for expanding Pacific Islands taro exports. However, major expansion in exports also requires substantial improvement in production, post-harvest handling practices and export certification systems.

This not only applies to the exported product but also to the containers in which they are shipped (i.e. to manage ‘hitch-hiker’ pests of concern using best practice container hygiene measures).

The FACT project is currently assisting its Fiji-based private enterprise partners, such as Balthan (Western) Ltd and Kaiming Agro Processing both exporters of taro, with post-harvest improvements and food safety certification.

The taro quarantine import protocol reforms recommended by the study are:

Repeal of the devitalization protocol requirements for Pacific Islands taro exports to Australia (with the exception of those countries in which taro viruses of quarantine concern have been recorded).

Repeal of the ban in Australia on the importation of small corm taro from the Pacific Islands (which is aimed at preventing this material being propagated).

Reclassification of commonly intercepted nematodes associated with Pacific Islands taro as non-regulated pests that do not require fumigation.

Taro research priorities to improve market access, as identified by the study, are divided into two broad categories: reforming taro quarantine import protocols, and improving taro production and marketing pathways.

Going forward, a number of projects funded by Australia are expected to build on work to date in this area.

The Pacific Horticultural and Agricultural Market Access program (funded by the Australian Agency for International Development), which commenced earlier this year, is expected to provide a substantial pool of resources to fund applied research activities that facilitate market access for priority commodities.

The study recommends that taro should be one such priority commodity.

A number of projects funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research are expected to undertake research activities relating to taro quality improvement.

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