Of Fiji, taro and tourists

The Pacific is not alone in experiencing changing agriculture, food production and culinary practices. There is a displacement of traditional foods that is occurring globally. As a consequence, the world’s industrialised food-supply system is based on a narrow plant and animal base, which is continuing to narrow even further, despite agricultural biodiversity representing one of humanity’s greatest resources (Hunter et al., 2017; Sage, 2012). This loss of biodiversity, and the genetic diversity that it represents, increases the risks for food insecurity and threatens traditional cultural and culinary practices. The foods, skills and food- related cultural practices of indigenous peoples are slowly vanishing, as this happens, culture is also lost. Kuhnlein et al. (2006: 1013) found that indigenous peoples’ knowledge about their ecosystems, is:

a treasure of knowledge that is typically overlooked and undervalued; which has potential benefits for the well-being and health not only of indigenous peoples themselves, but also industrialised and other populations’ and that efforts should work ‘towards making local cultural food resources sources of community pride, pleasure and responsibility, thereby ensuring local determination and sustainability of intervention effort.

These issues of food, biodiversity, conservation and sustainable food systems are becoming increasingly important in tourism. Just as tourism has contributed to changes in agricultural and culinary practices, equally it can play a role in rejuvenating and revaluing traditional indigenous knowledge about agriculture, biodiversity and cuisine by providing a market for local fanners, encouraging more local production and establishing value-chains from which the local communities can benefit (Pye-Smith, 2017). One example of how tourism can be used as a tool to connect food biodiversity, conservation and sustainability is an emerging agritourism venture that highlights the important role of taro in Fijian culture and cuisine.

Taro: an 'orphan crop' of immense importance

Taro is one of the world’s oldest food crops, dating back over 9,000 years. Often seen as an ‘orphan crop’ (a crop that is of local significance but one that is not traded as an international commodity, and attracts limited attention for research), taro’s global importance manifests most commonly at the local level through its role in traditional food systems. It is the fanners and communities who are the guardians of taro (Rao et al., 2010).

One of the reasons behind taro’s importance at the community level is that, with the exception of the skin, all parts of taro plants are edible (see Figure 9.1):

Fijian taro (Colocasia esculenla) ready for market Source

FIGURE 9.1 Fijian taro (Colocasia esculenla) ready for market Source: Shiri Ram (used with permission)

Its conns are baked, roasted, or boiled and the leaves are frequently eaten as a vegetable and represent an important source of vitamins, especially folic acid. The blades and petioles of leaves can be preserved or dried and are an important food in times of scarcity. Petioles and stolons are also eaten fried or pickled. The inflorescence (a flowering stalk) is a delicacy in some food cultures of Asia and the Pacific. The conns and leaves are also used for medicinal purposes.

R«o et al, 2010: I

Along with its importance as a source of food, in many cultures, taro is a sacred plant with high prestige and strong cultural and symbolic importance. In cultures such as those of the South Pacific, taro is intrinsic to cultural identity. In the Pacific, taro is presented on formal occasions, in domestic or agricultural rituals, and as part of religious celebrations. Taro is also seen in local legends, stories, chants and proverbs (Rao et al., 2010). Similar to the situation in South East Asian countries where ‘rice is life’ (Berno et al., 2019), Pacific Island life without taro is almost inconceivable.

There are four main types of taro in the South Pacific: Colocasia esculenta is the most commonly grown type and is usually grown in rain-fed, dry land, though some varieties can also be grown in irrigated terraces or swamps. Giant swamp taro (Cyrtosperma merkusit) is the main root crop of the low-lying atolls in the Pacific as it can grow in sandy saline soils and can withstand high winds. Cyrtosperma is often grown in pits, and some varieties can be left in the pits for 10-15 years, forming an important source of food in times of floods or cyclones. Both Colocasia and Cyrtosperma taro play important roles in local custom. Giant taro (Alocasia mactorrhizos) is a hardy variety that grows in a range of soil types. The final type of taro in the Pacific is Xantliosoina sagittifoliutn, which is a more recent introduction, having been brought from tropical America just over 100 years ago. Its performance in dry and less fertile soils is superior to Colocasia. These different types and varieties of taro vary considerably in appearance, taste, use and other properties (SPC, 1999, 2006).

Taro corms form an important source of carbohydrates, fibre, essential minerals, calcium and iron for Pacific Islanders. Some varieties of Cyrtosperma are also a rich source of zinc — one of the few non-animal sources of this important trace mineral. Some varieties of yellow-fleshed Cyrtosperma also contain significant amounts of provitamin A carotenoids. Consuming two cups of this varietal provides 100% of the estimated daily requirements of vitamin A. The leaves, stems and other parts of taro plants also provide valuable nutrition. The leaves of Colocasia, for example, are an excellent source of provitamin A carotenoids, calcium, fibre and vitamin C, and are enjoyed widely across the Pacific (SPC, 2006). The stems of the taro plant, however, are only eaten in a few areas in the Pacific, baseisei (Fijian taro stem salad) being one example.

As is the case in other Pacific Island countries, taro (known as ‘dalo’ in the Fijian language) is a staple of the Fijian diet (see Figure 9.2), but even this mainstay of island cuisine is at risk. There are known to be 125 varieties of dalo in Fiji, of which at least 70 were grown and consumed by Fijians before the arrival of other settlers and before commercialisation of the root crop (NatureFiji-MareqetiViti, n.d.). Although there are currently 82 varieties of dalo recognised in Fiji (Ministry' of Agriculture, 2018), emphasis on commercial production and marketability of the crop has seen a reduction to only a few (approximately 12) varietals being farmed commercially. Many of these 12 are hybrids, which in itself introduces significant vulnerabilities to things such as climate change, disease risk (for example the devastation of the taro leaf blight outbreak in Samoa in 1993), food and nutrition security, and economic livelihoods (SPC', 2019; Ministry' of Agriculture, 2018; D. Hunter, pers. comm.). This shift

A taro corm that has been cooked in a Fijian lovo (earth oven) Source

FIGURE 9.2 A taro corm that has been cooked in a Fijian lovo (earth oven) Source: Shiri Ram (used with permission) has meant a loss (and continuing loss) of the traditional varieties which many Fijians considered tastier but grow much slower and are therefore less desirable for commercial production. Commercially successful varietals have overwhelmed traditional ones to the point where most Fijians, particularly those in urban areas, now lack knowledge of them (NatureFiji-MareqetiViti, n.d.).

Food production structures and social structures are inextricably linked (Taylor et al., 2010). Thaman (2002) suggests that the loss of traditional knowledge about the uses, beliefs, management systems and language related to Pacific biodiversity is possibly the most serious obstacle to successful biodiversity conservation in the region. As such, the ongoing loss of traditional Fijian varieties of dalo is also the loss of cultural values and heritage. The urgent need to address the narrowing genetic base of taro across the Pacific has received considerable attention through the Taro Genetic Resources and Conservation Project (‘TaroGen’; Hunter and Taylor, 2007) and, more recently, through the work of the Pacific’s only regional gene bank, the Pacific Centre for Crops and Trees, which is a core part of the SPC’s Land Resources Division. The sense of urgency to conserve dalo in the Pacific, however, is largely limited to specialist circles within ministries of agriculture and forests in the region, and with partner institutions and governments (SPC, 2019). This is compounded by a lack of awareness amongst Fijians of the significance of the ongoing loss of traditional varieties of this important food crop:

Most farmers that had grown the traditional varieties and still know the traditional methods of growing dalo are getting older. If their knowledge is not documented or not passed onto the next generation (which may not happen because of the shift towards the commercial crop varieties), then our knowledge of traditional dalo varieties is lost, and our future generations may never have the opportunity to taste such a chiefly crop.

NatureFiji-MareqetiViti, n.d.: n.p.; Taylor et al., 2010

Many of these now rare types of dalo are linked to traditional Fijian nutrition, health and healing, and food security, as different types have different properties. There is an urgent need to mainstream this food biodiversity into agricultural, health and nutrition, education, and as argued in this chapter, sustainable cuisine and tourism sectors. As Suliana Siwatibau, a prominent Fijian ethno-botanist indicated, ‘If you lose the crop, you don’t just lose the food, you lose the knowledge’ (personal communication, 1 May 2019). As suggested by Heywood (2011: 2), ‘ethnopharmacology, biodiversity, agriculture, health, food and nutrition are all inextricably interconnected’.

 
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