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1. INTRODUCTION: IMPORTANCE OF TARO


1.1 Food Security Importance
1.2 Socio-Cultural Importance
1.3 Taro as a Cash Crop and Earner of Foreign Exchange
1.4 Role of Taro in Rural Development

The term taro is used to refer to Colocasia esculenta (L.) Schott. It should not be confused with the related aroid Xanthosoma spp. which is called tannia. In many parts of the Asia and Pacific region, the name for tannia is a modification or qualification of the name for taro. In Papua New Guinea for example, taro is called “taro tru” while tannia is called “taro singapo”. In Tonga, taro is called “talo Tonga” while tannia is called “talo Futuna”. In some of the world literature, taro and tannia are collectively called cocoyams, while in a place like Malaysia, the local name for taro (keladi) also applies to all the other edible aroids. The ensuing presentation here concerns itself with taro, Colocasia esculenta.

1.1 Food Security Importance

Table 1 shows that in 1998, about 6.6 million tonnes of taro/tannia were produced in the world on an area of 1.07 million hectares (the statistics combine taro and tannia). The bulk of the production and area were in Africa, with Asia producing about half as much as Africa, and Oceania about one tenth as much. The major producers in Asia were China, Japan, Philippines and Thailand; while in Oceania, production was dominated by Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Fiji.

Table 1. Production, Yield and Area for Taro/Tannia in 1998; only the Leading Producers are Indicated


Production
(1,000 tonnes)

Yield
(tonnes/ha)

Area
(1,000 ha)

World

6586

6.2

1070

Africa

4452

5.1

876

Asia

1819

12.6

144


China

1387

16.8

82


Japan

255

11.6

22


Philippines

118

3.4

35


Thailand

54

11.0

5

Oceania

283

6.2

46


Papua New Guinea

160

5.2

31


W. Samoa

37

6.2

6


Solomon Islands

28

21.9

1


Tonga

27

6.4

4


Fiji

21

14.7

1

Source: FAO Database, 1999
The relative importance of taro in each of the above countries can hardly be gleaned from the production statistics. It is very seriously distorted by factors of land mass and population. For example, a country like China, where rice holds sway, and where taro/tannia is a very minor crop, still manages to show substantial production because of the large land mass involved. A much better gauge of the importance of taro/tannia in each nation’s food basket comes from examining the percentage of total dietary calories that each person derives from taro/tannia. The top of Table 2 presents the top six countries in terms of the percentage of the dietary calories that comes from taro/tannia. Four of the top six countries are from the Oceania. Not even the heavy root crop consumers in Africa such as Zaire (Congo) and Cameroon could match the Oceania countries in terms of dependence on taro/tannia.

Table 2 further shows that Oceania as a whole has a higher dietary dependence on taro/tannia than any of the other continents of the world. The conclusion is obvious from these figures and from all available evidence. No other part of the world can match Oceania in terms of the intensity of production, utilisation and dependence on taro/tannia for food. Even though the above figures are combined for taro and tannia, in most of Oceania, taro is the predominant partner. Most of the cultures of Oceania have evolved on the strength of root crops as the major food source, and in most of them today, taro ranks among the top two or three staple food items. It plays a major role in the “affluent subsistence” which has for centuries characterised agriculture in Oceania.

Table 2. Percentage of Dietary Calories Derived from Taro/Tannia and from all Tubers in 1984 for Various Countries and Continents.


Taro/Tannia

All Tubers

Tonga

18.1

45.0

Samoa

16.0

19.2

Solomon Island

7.7

39.0

Ghana

7.1

43.3

Gabon

4.6

36.7

Papua New Guinea

4.2

32.6

Zaire (Congo)

0.1

56.8

Cameroon

0.5

44.5

Oceania

0.7

7.2

Asia

0.1

5.2

Africa

0.5

15.3

N. & Central America

0.0

2.6

S. America

0.0

6.4

Europe

0.0

4.7

World

0.1

6.0

Source: Adapted from Horton, 1988.

1.2 Socio-Cultural Importance

Taro is postulated to have originated in southern or south-east Asia, and to have been dispersed to Oceania through the Island of New Guinea very many centuries ago. The crop has evolved with the cultures of the people of the Asia/Pacific region. Not surprisingly, it has acquired considerable socio-cultural importance for the people. Among the food crops in Oceania, the adulation and prestige attached to taro is equalled only by yam in certain localities.

The socio-cultural importance of taro manifests itself in several ways:

a) It is considered a prestige crop, and the crop of choice for royalty, gift-giving, traditional feasting, and the fulfilment of social obligations.

b) Taro features prominently in the folklore and oral traditions of many cultures in Oceania and south-east Asia.

c) Various parts of the taro plant are used in traditional medical practice. Examples of this can be seen right from the Malay Peninsula all the way to Oceania.

d) As if to highlight the importance of taro in the countries, both Samoa and Tonga each have a depiction of taro as the main feature on one of their currency coins. Outside Oceania, it is unlikely that taro is given such a glorified place in any other part of the world.

e) The socio-cultural attachment to taro has meant that taro itself has become a totem of cultural identification. People of Pacific Island origin continue to consume taro wherever they may live in the world, not so much because there are no substitute food items, but mainly as a means of maintaining links with their culture. This cultural attachment to taro has spawned a lucrative taro export market to ethnic Pacific Islanders living in Australia, New Zealand and western North America.

1.3 Taro as a Cash Crop and Earner of Foreign Exchange

While a lot of taro is produced and consumed on a subsistence basis, quite a considerable amount is produced as a cash crop. Also surpluses from the subsistence production manage to find their way to market, thereby playing a role in poverty alleviation.

The taro corm is a very awkward market commodity. It is bulky, consisting of two-thirds water. It is fragile and easily bruised. It is perishable and can only store for a few days at ambient temperatures. Yet most of taro marketing takes place in form of the fresh corm, with few suitable processed forms available. The effectiveness of the taro cash crop system is therefore dependent on an adequate marketing structure. Unfortunately, very few of the producing countries have such structures. Fiji, Hawaii, and Cook Islands are examples of where efforts have been made to establish such structures, and quite a few farmers make reasonable money as taro producers.

Where taro can be exported, its production not only provides cash to the farmers but also valuable foreign exchange to the country. This is precisely what has happened in Fiji, Tonga, Cook Islands, Tuvalu, Thailand and, up till 1993, in Samoa. These countries have been able to earn substantial sums from the taro export trade, mainly to Australia and New Zealand. Many other countries would like to participate in taro exportation, but they are deterred by quarantine regulations against one or other of the taro diseases and pests.

1.4 Role of Taro in Rural Development

The taro industry provides meaningful employment to a large number of people, mostly in rural areas. Where taro exportation occurs, then the facilities for cleaning, sorting, packing and shipping the taro provide additional avenues for poverty alleviation and employment generation in the rural areas. Whereas as in Hawaii, processed forms of taro are produced in rural cottage industries, then the role of taro in rural development is even further enhanced.

It is therefore within the Asia/Pacific region that taro attains its greatest importance on earth. Within the region, it is significant as a provider of food security, as a focus of socio-cultural attention, as a cash crop and earner of foreign exchange, and as a vehicle for rural development. This document intends to first outline general principles relating to taro and its cultivation, and then to describe the peculiarities of taro cultivation in selected counties/territories in the region. Countries/territories have been chosen mainly on the basis of the intensity of taro cultivation, utilisation and significance.


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