Science, Technology and Innovation

STI Story

Establishing germplasm plots to improve the resilience and livelihoods of vulnerable farmers

Anno Darkop lives with his wife and young daughter in the highlands of Madang province, Papua New Guinea (PNG). He has a small farm in Teptep village, which is about 2000 metres above sea level. Most people living in this mountainous area are subsistence farmers, growing sweet potato as the main staple crop, and other vegetables.

Farming in the PNG Highlands is far from easy. Although the climate is tropical, Teptep is often cloudy and cold, being at such a high elevation. Frosts can easily destroy crops and there is the ever-present threat of droughts, as occurred in 1997 and 2015 with devastating consequences. Such extreme weather events mean that sweet potato planting material, necessary to perpetuate the crop from one season to the next, is frequently threatened.

Challenges faced by small-scale producers in Teptep

Anno is aware of the challenges he and his fellow farmers face. To improve his situation, he attended basic agricultural training with the Department of Agriculture and Livestock (DAL) and became involved in community support for the local DAL office. In addition to working with vegetables, he took an interest in the first flock of sheep donated by DAL. Since 2015, he also assumed the management of the demonstration farm and then went on to participate in the National Agricultural Research Institute’s climate change resilience project. This, in turn, led to involvement in the Benefit-sharing Fund project of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, one of several projects that showcase bottom-up innovative approaches. These BSF projects usually involve farmers working on participatory plant breeding alongside research institutions, to identify useful traits and develop climate-resilient crop varieties, bringing technology and knowledge from research institutions to farmers.

In order to sustain the supply of sweet potato during stressful times access to resistant planting material must be ensured – germplasm of varieties that are known to grow and yield when the temperature drops and the rains fail.

Anno acknowledges that “there is also an urgent need for training on sweet potato processing at the household level to produce products like flour that can be stored and consumed during times of stress. Other training would also be beneficial, particularly on how to best conserve sweet potato germplasm during times of stress.” But it is not only sweet potato that is under pressure. Potatoes are also grown in the PNG Highlands, although production has fallen off during recent times because of blight. There are, however, positive developments with the introduction of more resistant varieties.

Following the droughts of 1997 and 2015 other, more reliable, food sources were sought, and it was discovered that taro grew well under the local conditions. It became popular and was eagerly consumed after the droughts had passed. Similarly, pandanus palm shoots became a popular substitute for greens and vegetables that did not survive the frosts and droughts. The search for reliable staple crops became ever more important because government food aid, which included a rice ration, was not sufficient to ward off hunger, and families had to sell their belongings and travel long distances in search of food for their families.

L-R: 27 years old NARI’s Crops-Research Associate, Laurence Uberawa; 35 years old Sisirope Mot is one of the family farm team participants from Teptep; 36 years old Anno Darkop is the lead farmer for Teptep.
Teptep station farm. 36 years old Anno Darkop is the lead farmer for Teptep, together with other participants of his group, he is planting a local sweetpotato variety cutting on the Teptep poly-cross nursery. @NARI/Aaron Inamara
Harvesting wheat for seed distribution
Teptep station farm. Anno’s 30-year-old wife Rachael (right) and a young relative harvesting wheat for seed distribution. @NARI/Aaron Inamara

Anno remembers that “I was just a boy during the 1997 drought, but my mother ensured that the family had sweet potatoes to eat. She harvested all the tubers from the dry soil and moved them to a deep pit, where the soil was cooler. In this way the tubers were maintained in good condition so that they could be eaten when needed until the next season’s harvest.” Now assistance comes from the Benefit-sharing Fund project, which has introduced new sweet potato varieties (Simat, Mavindo, Rachael, PRAP 714, NSP01/NIB 005, Korowest, NIB 0812-018, Waghi Besta (Minj2), BSPBL 4, Kerot Simbu, RAB 36, K 9, Kerot Kainantu, Masung, Pito, Minj Purple) and new methods for planting, breeding and conserving sweet potato. Not only does this assistance provide farmers with new varieties, but it also helps with on-farm conservation of local sweet potato varieties. The National Agricultural Research Institute of PNG (NARI), the institution responsible for the BSF supported project, introduced new crops, including wheat, rice and a range of vegetables that can be managed using the newly learned conservation and breeding methods.

Looking forward to improved food security

On Teptep station’s demonstration farm there are field trials where sweet potato varieties that result from the participatory breeding efforts are planted out. Anno believes that “this success means that not only is it possible to breed sweet potatoes for the community, but it will also be possible to supply other parts of the province and beyond. There is hope that it will be possible to apply the new skills to our other crops following the success with sweet potatoes.”

Anno and his fellow farmers are grateful to NARI for engaging with the local communities and to the Benefit-sharing Fund of the International Treaty that funded activities for promoting innovative practices on sweet potato conservation and use of potato germplasm.

The project will run for a further two years and it is anticipated that production of sweet potato and other crops will be secured against the environmental pressures faced by the small-scale producers of the PNG Highlands. Application of science, technology and innovation will reinforce food security and the crop losses resulting from frosts, drought and disease will hopefully be a thing of the past.

Anno and his community are looking forward to improved food security and resilient livelihoods.

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