Conserving genetic resources vital

Nari, Normal

The National – Tuesday, December 14, 2010

STATISTICS from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation show that between 1995 and 2001, production of staple root and tuber crops in Papua New Guinea grew by 6.5% while the population grew by 15%.
There is also evidence that PNG and many other Pacific Island countries are facing food deficit and are exposed to food insecurity.
This means the future of PNG’s food security could be at stake.
The population growth rate has been steady at 2.3% per annum.
With the current population of more than six million people, more food is needed for this growing number of mouths.
So, what are the common foods that the bigger fractions of the six million-odd people eat?
No doubt, they are the root and tuber crops, although cereals and grains (eg rice) are important.
Such root and tuber crops include sweet potato, taro and yams. These are the stable foods for more than 85% of the population who live in the rural areas. They engage in subsistence food production to meet their daily requirements, with surpluses sold at local markets for cash income.
But, over the years, crop yields have remained static or have declined in some areas where population pressures are high.
The genetic resources existing under in situ (on-farm and in the wild) habitats are also depleting rapidly.
Reasons, among others, are being the environmental destruction through logging activities, agricultural development, trade-related policies, mining activities and natural catastrophes such as floods, landslides, earthquakes, droughts, fires and cyclones.
Consumer preferences have changed market demand, which is also responsible for the genetic erosion of landraces and farmer cultivars.
Climate change is another potential cause of genetic erosion as it poses further threats to the survival of genetic resources.
The challenge of producing sufficient food now remains a great concern for the government and people of this country.
PNG and many Pacific Island countries have been identified by FAO as having poor food security status. This has been shown by low food production and productivity, increased volumes of imported food, a decline in purchasing power and indicators showing poor health and nutrition.
On the other hand, PNG has a rich diversity of plant genetic resources.
PNG is home to many exotic and under-utilised fruit and nut species such as ton (pometia pinnata), galip nut (canarium indicum) and traditional vegetables such as pitpit and tulip. 
It is also a rich haven for crop genetic resource diversity and the centre of origin for sugar cane and winged bean of New Guinea.
Besides these, the nation is the secondary centre of diversity for sweet potato, taro, banana, yam, cassava and aibika. The diversity of these crops includes more than 1,000 sweet potato varieties, 800 taro, 200 banana, 300 yam, 70 cassava and 100 aibika varieties currently available.
Additionally, PNG is blessed with a broad genetic base of food crops that provides for tolerance against major pests and diseases. This means that crops are at less risk of being lost through attacks by pests and diseases, unlike those with a narrower genetic base. 
A good example of a narrow genetic base is the Samoan taro diversity that has only three varieties and was easily destroyed by the leaf blight disease.
So, how do we respond to issues of food security from the perspective of the surplus of genetic materials?
NARI has taken up the challenge of developing its crop improvement programme to address the issues of low yield, poor quality and declining productivity of subsistence food crop.
Crop improvement through the use of genetic resources offers opportunities for improving food security by overcoming constraints that limit food production. This will increase productivity, food quality and nutrition. 
NARI’s current crop improvement programme involves evaluation and selection of indigenous varieties (germplasm), introduction of new and improved genetic materials (rice, peanut, maize, bananas, potatoes and mangoes) and the development of these materials through “conventional breeding”, or crossing two varieties of the same species to produce a hybrid that has the desired genes for wanted traits.
The conventional breeding programme is focused on breeding taro lines that are resistant to taro leaf blight disease.
Over the years, the genetic diversity of the major staple food crops (sweet potato, taro, banana, yam, cassava and aibika, fruit and nut species and traditional vegetables) has been collected from farmers’ fields and market places.
They have been individually characterised and evaluated for their qualities and conserved in fields on research stations.
Through the evaluation process, superior landraces or farmer cultivars are selected, multiplied and distributed to farmers throughout the country for production.
NARI has been entrusted by the government to look after the rich genetic diversity of food crop species in PNG. 
The institute has taken an active interest in increasing crop production and productivity through improving crop quality by using superior genetic materials from the national germplasm collections and gene-banks from abroad. 
The conservation and safe-keeping of the genetic diversity of food crops is important for food security, now and for future generations.
The country needs to conserve this diversity or the future of its food security could be at stake. Not only that, but, future generations could lose sight of the rich diversity that is found locally.