Efforts to sustain diversity of crops

PASCAL PANDAU, an associate researcher in crops based at Nari’s Momase Research Centre in Lae, Morobe, writes about the diversity of crops and their wild relatives that offers a wide range of resources to explore and improve agricultural productivity in Papua New Guinea.
Potting tissue culture plantlets of giant swamp taro at Laloki research centre.
Samples of sweet potato diversity in the country.

THIS is captured in relevant policies and strategies of the National Agricultural Research Institute (Nari).
Nari is mandated to promote sustainable conservation and use of the country’s rich plant and crop genetic resources.
This is because there is great potential to use them to address ongoing food and livelihood challenges facing our people.
Food security has been a very critical concern in recent years; particularly because of the persisting changes in environmental and climatic patterns and conditions.
These trends are disrupting traditional farming calendars and thereby pose a lot of risk for the loss of seed materials.
This is critical for rural farmers who usually source new planting materials from old gardens.
During extreme climatic experiences, this could cause a great deal of problem.
The experience of 2015-2016 drought, showed that there was so much loss of local seeds material for common staple crops such as sweet potato, banana and taro. To restore resilience for food production and supply, farmers had to be provided new or treated seed materials.
This was possible due to the work that Nari has been doing as the leading national custodian for the conservation of indigenous crop and plant resources.
Under this mandate, Nari has been able to set up and manage numerous plant genetic resources nursery collections around the country.
These nurseries are specially set up to replicate conditions of the natural habitats of selected types of plants and crops.
Nursery collections are kept for various banana, aibika, and cassava and yam species at the Laloki research station in Central.
Taro species nurseries are held at the Bubia station in Morobe province while lowland sweet potato collections are maintained at Kerevat and Aiyura stations in East New Britain and Eastern Highlands respectively.
Other collections include nurseries of species such as turmeric and pepper to cassava and highlands pitpit varieties.
There are also collections of exotic crops such as kava and galip as well as introduced species of bananas, taros and yams.
There were a number of activities undertaken at these plant genetic resources nurseries.
The first thing that happens was the characterisation processes.
This is usually done to establish scientific profile for any species that is newly added to a collection.
After that, a preliminary evaluation is undertaken to determine the agricultural, nutritional and commercial potentials of any specie.
Then comes the utilisation phase where crossed varieties are tested, certified and released into the farming sector.
In recent years, Nari has successfully developed improved varieties for common staples such as taro, sweet potato and cassava.
This work is continuing with anticipation of more new varieties being produced.
Apart from the research station based plant genetic resources collection nurseries, Nari also supports local on farm or natural habitat-based conservation initiatives.
We do this through provision of advice about what sustainable measure concerned communities should take.
Effort is also made to document these farm or habitat species for the database.
This information is then used to provide technical advice to the Institute and the government on access and benefit sharing arrangements for the use of the indigenous plant resources.
The information is also used for both educational and bureaucratic awareness purposes.
These can help to drive efforts to create policies for sustainable management and use of our plant genetic resources.
The Institute is currently engaged in various ongoing projects to establish new range of crop breeds or varieties.
A good example of such work is the new on-farm sweet potato breeding project.
This will run for the next four years and cover target sites in selected coastal and highlands provinces.
Another is the mutation breeding program which has been undertaken with the support of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, since last year.
For Papua New Guinea, our scientists are looking into drought and disease tolerant varieties of sweet potato and banana.
There are also novel efforts to raise new breeds of tree crops using cuttings.
This is happening at our Islands research centre at Kerevat, East New Britain.
These are usually done to improve resilience of crop species against threats posed by diseases and climatic stresses.
They are also important for improving yield qualities of targeted crops.
The work of developing our plant genetic resources is therefore very important pursuit.
It needs ample technical and financial support from other national and international to upgrade capacity through the addition of the latest technologies in crop conservation and improvement.
We have done a good amount of work over the past few years and hope to make more progress to improve local food production and security going forward.