Tarry not, taro
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CTA. 2003. Tarry not, taro. Spore 103. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
Permanent link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/10568/47814
Internet URL: http://spore.cta.int/images/stories/pdf/old/spore103.pdf
Rooted in culture, taro is both eaten and exalted in the Pacific, and dished up in the Caribbean and Africa too. Is its future precarious or promising?If you were a taro an oval tuber of 1 to 3 kg and under-flowing with confidence, you might...
Rooted in culture, taro is both eaten and exalted in the Pacific, and dished up in the Caribbean and Africa too. Is its future precarious or promising? If you were a taro an oval tuber of 1 to 3 kg and under-flowing with confidence, you might well think that the world was trying to talk you into believing that you had a serious personality disorder. On the one hand, at least in the Pacific, you are revered by all the people you grow amongst. When you are served up at mealtimes, everyone present is bound to cease whatever hostilities they were pursuing. You feature in traditional medicine and on coins in Samoa and Tonga; you might end up on a national flag one day. You rank 14th worldwide among staple crops. In Hawaii, you are so important that only men may grow you. In Cameroon, where the women do the growing and the cooking, you are the centre of a complex serving ritual, and are used as a way to catch your man . Something for everyone. But. You are on the list of the world s most under-utilised crops though you could regard that more as a challenge than a put-me-down. Your starchy flesh is toxic, to an irritating level, unless well cooked. You are perishable and store for a week, no more. You are susceptible to leaf blight, and to removal from entire nations fields and plates if resistance is not improved. Some people regard you as poor people s food. And after a brief flirtation in the 1990s with the yuppie markets in Europe and North America, only the ethnic and diaspora markets stay true to you. More than meets the eye Chin up, taro, it s time, quite literally, to turn a new leaf. A root crop, Colocasia esculenta originated in Asia where it is widely known as taro a name that has spread across the world. Normally small and round, the Caribbean variety is longer, known as dasheen , from the French chou de chine , or Chinese cabbage, and the tubers are known as as eddo or malanga . As a member of the calla lily family, its leaves are cooked as greens; when served as callaloo in Trinidad or Jamaica, it attains the worship-level of a national dish. In West Africa, where the tubers are mashed with cassava as fufu , it is a staple in Cameroon, Ghana, Guinea and Nigeria. It shares the name cocoyam with its relation Xanthosoma spp also known as macabo or tannia . Grown in 30 countries, either in flooded wetlands or in uplands, the bulk of taro production is in Africa. Nigeria accounts for almost half of the world s production of 8.5 million t. Other major producers in sub-Saharan Africa are Ghana, Côte d Ivoire, Madagascar and the Central African Republic. After Africa comes Asia, where China is the main producer, followed by Japan, the Philippines and Thailand. The heart of the diet With production at 300,000 t, Oceania is outshone by all other regions except the Caribbean but only in volume. For the general shine of taro is brightest right here among the nations and territories of the Pacific. Says FAO, 'no other part of the world can match Oceania in terms of the intensity of production, utilisation and dependence on taro for food'. In Tonga, where tubers represent almost half the nation s intake of dietary calories, about 40% of them come from taro. In Solomon Islands, about 10% of people s dietary calories come from taro, 30% from other tubers. It is in Samoa that the central role of taro is best expressed. Prior to a devastating spread of taro leaf blight in 1993, virtually all the population s dietary intake from tubers (one-fifth of the overall diet) came from taro. The overnight removal of taro from household menus, and the prohibition of even modest exports to Samoans in Australia, New Zealand and California, was a great shock to the nation s psyche, diet and economy in short, to its identity. That shock made many Pacific nations realise their vulnerability to leaf blight, and to re-focus on a crop that they had perhaps taken for granted. Given its sometimes spiritual attributes, one observer mused, maybe taro was a Pacific person s tenth chakra a person s hub of energy. In healthy moderation After the blight, the new impulse. Through the TaroGen programme, set up in 1998 at the Fiji office of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, advances have been made in the management, deployment and use of genetic diversity. The crop has bounced back in Samoa after farmers planted specially-bred disease-resistant varieties. Although more research is needed to maintain diversity and resistance, it must be accompanied by improved availability of resistant planting materials and seeds as much a question of organisation as research breakthroughs. Researchers are now focussing on DNA fingerprinting of taro varieties for the accurate comparison of accessions between countries. Another focus is on virus indexing procedures, to overcome quarantine concerns in international exchanges of taro germplasm. The establishment and maintenance of genebanks for in vitro storage remains a priority, but more attention is now going to seed storage systems and on-farm conservation. According to TaroGen, this will 'involve farming communities in research and development and combine social, biological and agroecological aspects involved in taro cultivation'. This perennial issue of good understanding between farmer and researcher is high on the agenda of the Third Taro Symposium, scheduled for late May 2003 in Fiji. But in a world of changing tastes, can taro become a more tradable commodity as well as being a cultural icon and an essential part of the diet of many Pacific nations? Improvements in quality, standards, marketing, new products, industrial processing techniques and storage will all help to pull one of the most ancient of crops into a new era, without pulling out its roots. Chips, powders, flours, cakes, biscuits, ice-creams banal enough, but power food in a way. Power for a people. Power for a plant. [caption to illustration] The real thing (taro tru) in Wewak, Papua New Guinea For further reading: The leaves we eat CTA-SPC co-publication, 1992, 97 pp. ISBN 982 203 2045 5. CTA number 821. 10 credit points. The staples we eat CTA-SPC co-publication, 1999, 102 pp. ISBN 982 203 6957 5. CTA number 959. 10 credit points.