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VC taroTaro is an important part of the food system in the Pacific © ACIAR

One of the world’s oldest domesticated plants, taro, is consumed worldwide and is of particular cultural importance in the Pacific region. Demand for the root crop in western markets is also providing increased opportunities for export with breeding research and use of ICTs making the product more competitive in price and quality.

Taro is an important starchy staple throughout the tropics, including Asia, the Pacific, Africa, and the Caribbean. The leaves, stems, and root are all edible, although taro is toxic when fresh and has to be cooked to be edible. In 2010, an estimated 9 million t of various taro species was grown and consumed worldwide. West Africa is by far the largest taro producing region (known here as cocoyam), with most consumed locally, according to FAO. However, the crop is a particularly important part of traditional food systems in the Pacific, and is one of the few fresh commodities for which Pacific Island States have been able to achieve a significant level of exports, particularly to Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and the US. 

Of the 10,000-12,000 t exported annually (worth approximately €4.3 million), Fiji currently accounts for 95%, with Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu making up the rest. And while there has been little growth in recent years, taro exports have the potential to more than double if the product could be made more competitive in terms of price and quality, states a 2011 study by the European Union-funded Facilitating Agricultural Commodity Trade (FACT) project. 

Overcoming market barriers

However, whilst the FACT study highlighted that, “increased taro exports would result in significant benefits for large numbers of low-income rural people in the Pacific”, the study also determined that the market for fresh taro in Australia, in particular, may not be economically viable. This is due to the current quarantine requirement for devitalisation (topping and tailing to prevent propagation), which affects shelf life and greatly restricts market expansion. In contrast, Japan and the US, which have larger taro industries than Australia, have no requirement for devitalisation of taro. No scientific basis has been found to justify the devitalisation for taro and the study states that reform of quarantine import protocols is a necessary requirement for expanding Pacific Island taro exports but that substantial improvement in production, postharvest handling practices, and export certification systems are also required. 

To improve the marketability of taro in the Pacific, trials are currently being conducted focusing on a number of potential ‘elite’ varieties. The research is part of a collaborative partnership between the Government of Samoa, Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), University of the South Pacific, Samoan growers, industry groups and various government bodies across the Pacific to boost taro production and build a stronger taro industry. Testing has so far been based on consumer preferences for taste, resistance to blight disease (Phytophthora colocasiae), climate resilience and production capacity. Blight, in particular, is a key issue for the Pacific, after the disease devastated the Samoan taro industry in the 1990s. In addition, training has been provided to agricultural staff in Samoa in taro micro-propagation techniques and protocols developed by SPC’s Centre for Pacific Crops and Trees to boost access to clean planting materials. 

A dashing approach

In the Caribbean, an innovative, ICT-based approach has been used in St. Vincent for exporting taro (known here as dasheen) to the UK. With support from FAO, the Eastern Caribbean Trading and Agriculture Development Organization set up a taro value chain between farmers and buyers. With smallholder farmers reluctant to join a cooperative, consignments for European buyers are filled by using SMS to connect with 200 small farmers. Informed of the price and volumes required, farmers are then free to choose whether or not to supply. With export prices higher than in the local market, the initiative has proved very successful, and growers have increased their revenues by up to 100%. Farmers have also learnt to grade and pack their own dasheen to add further value.

Susanna Thorp

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