A short distance from the Southern Taiwan Science Park and its cluster of optoelectronics and green-energy companies, an institute quietly does vital work in an entirely different direction. What is now known as “AVRDC - The World Vegetable Center” aims to alleviate both malnutrition and poverty by increasing the production and consumption of nutritious vegetables.“The world depends on 15 to 20 staple crops, but there are thousands of vegetables which can be eaten,” says Dyno Keatinge, the center’s director general.
Citing the World Health Organization’s recommendation that people eat at least 400g of fruit and vegetables per day, excluding starchy foods like potatoes and cassava, he says: “The nutrient value of most vegetables has fallen over the past 50 years because they’ve been bred for shelf-life and appearance. If people are to eat a more balanced diet, we need to have much more investment in vegetables. The lack of research is a major problem.”
Keatinge point out that “biofortified” crops - those selectively bred so as to be especially rich in nutrients - are an alternative to vitamin supplements. He gives an example: “The golden tomatoes developed here are rich in vitamin A. However, because their color is different to normal tomatoes, winning over consumers took some effort.”
Since 1978, the center has released 184 tomato varieties (also called “lines”) in 44 countries, including 22 in Taiwan and 17 in India. As well as improve diet, some of these have reduced “food miles.” Until recently, Tanzania’s biggest tomato processor and producer of ketchup had to import most of the tomato pulp it uses from China. However, since the World Vegetable Center introduced a new cultivar with thicker skins (making for easier shipping, and lasting much longer after picking without refrigeration), the company has undertaken to source tomatoes from 3,800 local smallholders and hopes to increase this number in the future.
The center’s efforts go far beyond improving vegetable varieties and helping farmers maximize yields. Researchers also identify inexpensive and convenient food-preparation methods which retain vegetables’ nutritional value, and devise ways in which vegetables can be profitably processed and marketed by farming households and small-scale entrepreneurs.
In Keatinge’s opinion, improving humanity’s diet requires cooperation between the public and private sectors. “Pre-breeding, hybridization work is very expensive. No private-sector body can afford it,” he says. “The private sector has the distribution networks which enable us to share new lines with farmers in a timely manner.”
“Our work is very multidisciplinary, and goes all the way from the farm to the table,” says Maureen Mecozzi, AVRDC’s head of communications and information. In the Philippines, which currently has the lowest rate of vegetable consumption in Asia, the center works with celebrities to encourage people to eat more vegetables. Seed kits are given to families in South Asia, where small home gardens have been found to dramatically increase vegetable consumption while cutting grocery bills. The center’s scientists search for biocontrol agents, such as flies and wasps which prey on Maruca vitrata, a moth whose larvae can decimate legume crops...
To see the article in full, click here. The photo shows African scarlet eggplants growing in the center's demonstration garden.
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