Lowly camote to save the day – for food security and climate-change resiliency

A woman farmer in Southern Palawan shows a newly uprooted cassava. Women in indigenous people communities in the province are planting root crops like ube (purple yam) and cassava to help fight poverty and protect the biodiversity-rich Mount Mantalingahan Protected Landscape.

Camote (sweet potato) chips, anyone?  How about camote cue, or the simple boiled camote? 

Did you know there is more to the lowly sweet potato than your favorite merienda (snack) food?

Among other high-value crops, camote, and other root and tuber crops are now being considered for development by the Department of Agriculture (DA) to prop up food production, and boost the country’s food security and resilience to climate change effects like strong typhoons, flash floods, landslides or even long-season of drought.

In his keynote message delivered by Undersecretary Cheryl Marie Natividad-Caballero during the opening of the two-day “Regional Congress: Root and Tuber Crops for Food Security and Climate Change Resilience in Asia”  held at  a hotel in Quezon City recently, Agriculture Secretary William D. Dar highlighted the importance of the root and tuber crops in boosting the country’s food security and climate-change resilience.

The event served as a venue for root and tuber crops industry stakeholders to share industry developments and approaches, and discuss strategies and initiatives to further prop up production capacities, and expand markets, in Asia.

It was organized by the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST-PCAARRD), and the International Potato Center (CIP)  with funding support from International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD).

Major challenges

Dar said the DA is currently faced with four major challenges—the African swine fever, fall armyworm,  and the falling prices of palay and copra.

These are the reasons why Dar said since he assumed the top post as the country’s food czar, the DA “hit the ground running” on how the agency is expected to deliver services for the Filipino people.

He added:  “Innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship is key to competitiveness. It means expertise on pest and disease management, postharvest, plant physiology and horticulture.

New thinking for Agriculture

Dar said the conference came at an auspicious time, as the current DA leadership is pursuing a systematic and long-term strategy in attracting private investments, developing markets and promoting exports of raw and processed agricultural products, under what he calls our “New Thinking for Agriculture.”

“At the core of this New Thinking is Inclusive Market-Oriented Development [IMOD] as a strategy to modernize the country’s agriculture sector, boost its resilience against climatic stresses, create employment and income opportunities, and uplift the living conditions of millions of smallholder farmers,” he said.

He said as DA chief, the goal is to have a food secure Philippines with prosperous farmers and fisherfolk.

With regards to the country’s root and tuber crops industry, he said, “We recognize the huge contribution of the industry in our agricultural economy.” 

According to Dar, the country’s production of top 2 tubers—cassava and sweet potato—totaled 3.25 million metric tons (MMT) valued at P2.7 billion at current prices.

“Cassava and sweet potatoes are grown in 312,000 hectares nationwide,” he said.

Liberalized world trading order

He said the globalization of markets created a slew of tremendous challenges and opportunities for Philippine agriculture, in general, and the root and tuber crops industry, in particular.

“The challenge comes from the need to ensure the quality of our products at competitive prices and produce them in economies of scale. But heightened competition also offers us the opportunity to strengthen the national agricultural support system to prosper in the context of our international trade agreements,” he said.

He cited as an example the Asean economic integration and its accompanying free-trade agreement which started in 2015, and gave rise to a large consumer base of 635 million people and combined trade amounting to nearly $3 trillion.

For the longest time, we have been lagging behind our ASEAN peers in terms of land productivity, crop diversification and exports, he said.

Of the Big 5 of Asean—Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines—the latter is the only country with a negative trade balance because it imports more food and agri-based products than it exports.

A fighting chance for Filipino farmers

DA, he said, recognizes its duty to provide our small farmers, fishers and small-scale entrepreneurs the fighting chance in the global arena.

Through the Bureau of Plant Industry and the High-Value Crops Development Program, which coordinate all efforts for this subsector, the DA is working to ensure the availability of high-quality seeds and planting materials to support the agency’s expansion program for priority root and tuber crops, especially in indigenous peoples (IPs) communities.

Dar said the DA will also establish post-harvest facilities and encourage value addition, bring Filipino root and tuber crops, farmers and entrepreneurs, timely market information, and facilitate all the linkages they require to make the industry profitable, productive and globally competitive.

“We will continuously improve national regulatory services, including our certification systems, and our pest-risk analysis and food-safety services; and develop and promote better production technologies throughout the archipelago, including the conduct of Farmers Field School and Package of Technology (POT) and Training of Trainers (TOT) sessions,” he explained.

Nutrient-rich food crop

Root and tuber crops, or RTCs, have been gaining recognition as nutrient-rich food crops, versatile raw materials for micro and small enterprises, and agri-industry, such as food, feeds, starch, bioethanol, and instrumental to enhance resilience to climate change, DOST-PCAARRD and CIP said.

RTCs grow in a wide range of environments, require lower input than grains and have exhibited evidence of addressing vulnerability and risks related to increasingly recurrent extreme weather events, particularly in Asia and the Pacific region.

The experts believe the cultivation of RTCs amid challenges—including the low productivity of smallholder farmers, pests, diseases, limited utilization and consumption, slow adoption of improved production and processing technologies, and lack of compliance to industry standards offer—farmers in Asia and the Pacific an opportunity to not just put food on the table, such as during emergency situations like natural calamities, but a better economic opportunity through exports.  

They said that one just have to plant the right variety and unique and interesting value addition that will sell the by-product.

Raise awareness

Diego Naziri, of the CIP, or Research Center of  Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), said the two-day event aims to raise awareness on a wide range of stakeholders, including researchers, government agencies, policy-makers, nongovernment organizations, and private sectors, about the importance of root and tuber crops for the livelihood of the people, and as a resilient crop to face the challenge of climate change.

“One of the main outputs we expect from this Congress is to have stronger collaboration and reciprocal knowledge about what we do on roots and tuber crops in terms of research initiatives, and establish collaborative undertakings in research and innovations in root and tuber crops and put the result of the research in the hands of the farmers and the private sector,” said Naziri,  also a project coordinator at FoodSTART.

Of the 100 participants in the event, most are from Asia, including a huge delegation from the Philippines, and representatives from India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Tonga, Myanmar, and Korea.  There are also key representatives from Kenya, Colombia, and the United Kingdom.

Disaster food

According to Naziri, root and tuber crops, particularly sweet potato, are very resilient. 

He said during the aftermath of Supertyphoon Yolanda (international code name Haiyan), where farms were destroyed, root and tuber crops, particularly sweet potato, survived the devastation.

“We have very good examples where root and tuber crops became instrumental in recovery from shocks,” he said, citing the case of Yolanda wherein the sweet potato was among the few survivors among food crops.

All around the world, root and tuber crops remain the last crop standing after the devastating effect of climate change-induced weather events, he said.

“This is important because farmers have access to food in times of food shortage.  Another big advantage of this crop is they are short cycled,” he added.

Sweet potato takes only 90 to 100 days to reach maturity, he explained.

During the post-Yolanda rehabilitation in the affected areas, he said sweet potato planting materials were distributed to help farmers quickly recover. 

Another so-called disaster crop, he said, is the cassava, known locally as kamoteng kahoy  or balinghoy.

Even when cassava is destroyed, the fact that the root crop remains underground makes it safe. 

It is highly perishable after harvest, lasting only two to three days after harvest, he said. However, despite its stem and leaves being destroyed, as long as the roots and the crop are in the ground, they can be kept there for a month and still be good for human consumption, he explained.

Feeding the world

Root and tuber crops help feed the world, says Naziri.

“In terms of production, the roots and tuber crops produce more than 500 million tons of food globally and they are the key staples for about 300 million people around the world,” he said.

Over 1 billion consumers benefited from the works of CGIAR and CIP to improve the productivity of root and tuber crops, he said.

CGIAR and CIP conduct research in partnership with national-partners, primarily to develop new varieties of root and tuber crops.

CGIAR and CIP have the largest gene bank of potatoes and sweet potatoes in the world and distribute these varieties to farmers around the world. 

CIP has offices in 40 countries, including Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

Crop of indigenous communities

Jerry Jing Pacturan, country program officer for Asia and the Pacific Region of IFAD, said root and tuber crops, particularly camote, is the crop of many indigenous communities.

They are the crops of many poor communities, such as in the upland areas of IPs in Southeast Asia.

Besides being very resilient that they survive during typhoons, they are good sources of food and nutrition than most food.

On top of these, root crops are cheap, with camote costing around P50 to P90 per kilogram only, depending on the variety or quality. 

While it is a favorite snack for many Filipinos, however, camote is not considered a staple food, unlike rice, or white corn in some parts of Visayas and Mindanao.

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