Pacific's indigenous vegetable revived
The Secretariat of the Pacific Community through its Centre for Pacific Crops and Trees (SPC, CePaCT) is working closely with five Pacific island countries (Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Fiji) to revive and unlock the potential of bele (Abelmoschus manihot) through a two year French Pacific Fund project “How an indigenous vegetable can contribute to sustainable agriculture”.
The project also addresses some of the limitations and prospects as well as priority research needs that were highlighted in the EU Pacific Regional Agricultural Programme (PRAP) funded project on promoting the conservation and use of underutilized and neglected crops in the late 1990s.
Bele, also known by several names in the Pacific such as aibika in PNG or slippery cabbage in the Solomon Islands, is considered one of the Pacific’s nutritious indigenous vegetable. It is high in protein, vitamins (Vitamins A and C, riboflavin, thiamin and niacin) and minerals (potassium, magnesium, calcium and iron) compared to Chinese cabbage and spinach, both are introduced vegetables in the Pacific.
It is known to have medicinal properties for fertility and ease childbirth. A crop also requires low maintenance and some varieties are known to be tolerant to drought and certain pest diseases.
Conserving bele in the field is often a constraint countries faced due to limited resources. Loss of unique and valuable diversity is unavoidable due to no backups and safekeeping in a regional place. Some 30 varieties of bele were noted to have been lost over the years in Papua New Guinea in the early 1990s.
A regional inception meeting held in October last year at CePaCT and attended by SPC thematic teams was timely to discuss a framework for conserving unique bele diversity from the region and to revive and promote potential use due to its high nutritional value to communities.
The five project countries (all Melanesian societies) consume more bele than other Pacific islands as well as having the largest diversity of bele resources in the Pacific and perhaps in the world.
The ongoing project activities aim to rationalize national bele collections, establish regional collections at SPC and document traditional knowledge both linking to farming practices and food processing.
Some poster publications to promote the importance of bele by each country based on genetic diversity, climate change resilient and nutrition, as well as a production of fact sheets is in the pipeline.
A cost benefit analysis to be carried out by SPC on assessing economical benefits of bele looking at optimal production levels using different farming practices.
CePaCT is responsible for developing virus indexing protocols, fine tuning of tissue culture protocols, as well as exploring the potential of cryopreservation for conserving bele.
The project is also timely to support countries with new market opportunities open up for export of leafy vegetables to countries like New Zealand where a huge population of Pacific islanders live.