HERALD WEEKLY ISSUE 608: 21 March 2012

Protecting the future of Taro
The Ministry of Agriculture announces moves to protect Taro from disease

The staple, taro, will be one of the main crops on display at the upcoming Farmers Market and on Monday, the Ministry of Agriculture announced plans to secure future supplies of this important foodstuff by commencing a breeding programme aimed at seeking out more disease resistant varieties of taro.
The public and visitors are expected to pour into the Punanga Nui Market next Wednesday 2 May to attend the Farmers Market where they will admire and purchase the produce on display.
The Business Trade and Investment Board (BTIB) are launching this event in partnership with the Punanga Nui Market on Wednesday 2nd May, 2012 and every second Wednesday thereafter. The concept of a Farmer’s Market focuses on produce including fruits and vegetables, root crops, organic foods, value added foods packed in to retail sizes, plants and flowers. It is also a meeting place where consumers can meet with growers and meet with those who grow the product that they sell.
Few may appreciate the effort farmers, planters and growers put into producing the goods and the constraints many face in terms of acquiring arable, productive land and water.
In this issue the Herald looks into the production of one major staple crop, Taro, and what is being done to protect it from disease.
In the Times on Friday the constraints faced by growers regarding water will be discussed and in next week’s Herald, the issue of diminishing arable land on Rarotonga will be looked into.
For this series of topics, the Herald met with and spoke to Associate Minister for Agriculture, Hon Kiriau Turepu who is also a major grower on Rarotonga, Anthony Brown, Secretary for Agriculture and a member of the Titikaveka Growers Association and William Wigmore of the Ministry for Agriculture.
Taro- a vulnerable staple
According to William Wigmore, seven main varieties of taro are cultivated on Rarotonga and are popular in terms of texture and taste. They are;
Veo (yellow flesh)
Veo Tea tea (whitish flesh)
Niue (green stalk)
Niue (red stalk)
Manauru (pink stem)
A taro whose flesh turns purple after cooking (has no proper name)
A taro with a pink stem, a light yellow but dense flesh, from Mangaia (has no proper name).
All these varieties are grown in swamps which is the traditional method of cultivation on Rarotonga. They are either grown in raised beds or wet beds.
Swamp grown taro has a sticky texture to the flesh which Rarotongans find enjoyable says Wigmore.
Wigmore said growers could not afford to be complacent as taro is vulnerable to disease and research into more disease resistant varieties is ongoing.
He said prior to 1992, Samoa was exporting some $20 million of taro to New Zealand then in 1992 a taro blight disease devastated the Samoan crop.
Since then, donor agencies have funded research into more disease resistant taro varieties.
Just two years ago, research identified some 5 varieties of taro that were disease resistant and while they are enjoyable to eat, they are of a lesser quality to the pre-1992 variety.
Fiji continues to export the same variety as the pre-1992 taro to NZ.
Wigmore said the Cook Islands needs to be prepared for diseases. To this end, Wigmore said the Cook Islands will shortly start a taro breeding programme with funding available through the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) Land Resources Division. The programme also involves Tonga and Fiji. In May two persons will be sent to Samoa and two to Tonga/Fiji to be trained in breeding. They will then return to Rarotonga to carry out breeding.
Wigmore assures growers the intention is not to replace existing varieties but to do the research now into disease resistant taro. Wigmore cautions it is just a matter of time before a disease comes and we need to be prepared in advance, that is, know which varieties are disease resistant now so as to avoid time being spent on tests.
He said the SPC has a gene bank where it maintains cultures of crops important to the Pacific. It makes these available free of charge for research purposes.
Taro originated from Asia and the Asian taro is the most resistant to disease. In Asia, the staple is rice and in Thailand for instance, taro is treated as a dessert.
According to Wigmore, the high costs involved in cultivating taro means it is unlikely we could ever export successfully to NZ for example when other Pacific nations like Fiji can do so in greater quantities and for a cheaper price to the NZ consumer.
As our taro is grown mainly in raised beds, the labour costs are therefore high compared to say Fiji. Fiji taro retails in NZ for $3.50 a kilo. Fiji exports taro to NZ by the container load-five 20 foot containers a week.
The smaller volume of Cook Islands taro means air freighting it to a “niche market” rather than shipping it. Air freight pushes prices up and it’s likely Cook Islands taro would end up retailing at $9 a kilo.
The price comes down considerably if sold locally.
Affecting the volume of taro says Wigmore is the sizable percentage of the crop lost to rot. Wigmore estimates that for every 100 taro grown on a wet bed, more than 10 percent would be lost to rot. This loss could be reduced partially if water is kept constantly moving and not allowed to become stagnant.
On a dry bed, the loss rate per 100 taro would be about 5%. -Charles Pitt

Herald Issue 608 21 March
- Terms of one China Policy document should be reviewed
- Pacific Media Assistance Scheme Seeks Innovation
- Successful NZ visit by PM
- Rerekura Teaurere New Climate Change Coordinator
- News Briefs

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