Addressing fruit quality, production and profitability to enhance resilience and livelihoods in the South Pacific
Better food security, increased market opportunities and improved livelihoods for Pacific Island producers and subsistence farmers are among the aims of a major project being led by USC’s Professor of Horticulture Steven Underhill, with support from Dr Yuchan Zhou and Dr Lila Singh-Peterson.
The $2.3 million project to improve fruit production and postharvest handling in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga is funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).
Various strategies to improve fruit quality, volumes and supply reliability will be explored during the four-year study being conducted in partnership with University of Queensland, Fiji National University, The Pacific Community and the Agricultural Ministries of Tonga, Fiji and Samoa. Other components of the project will work closely with the private sector and community based non- government organisations to develop and implement long-term livelihood enhancement and gender equality objectives.
The high proportion of people struggling with non-communicable disease in the South Pacific has also highlighted the need to stimulate domestic fruit production, particularly in terms of access to fruit low in sugars.
“Currently fruit production represents less than 10% of the overall horticulture output in the Pacific,” said Professor Underhill. “This project aims to boost production, reduce losses and increase markets for five key fruits: mango, breadfruit, papaya, pineapple and citrus.”
“Locals tend to focus on growing root and cash vegetable crops and don’t tend to spend much effort growing and nurturing tree fruit,” he said. “Fruit trees can often be more labour intensive, more susceptible to natural disasters, and some species are very susceptible to disease. Between those three problems, it’s been challenging for growers.”
One example is mangos in Fiji, where poor quality fruit, biannual fruiting, and a relatively short production season impede successful commercial production. Notably, much of the Fijian mango industry was significantly damaged by Cyclone Winston in early 2016.
According to Professor Underhill, work is underway on several fronts to identify mango cultivars better suited to the climate, to test interventions that will improve flowering during high rainfall and the evaluation of bagging techniques to improve fruit quality. This research and development effort will assist wider pro-community cyclone recovery efforts.
In addition, research on the postharvest diseases affecting mangos in Fiji, is being conducted by USC PhD candidate and John Allwright Fellowship holder Mereia Fong Lomavatu.
Another example is breadfruit, a staple food throughout much of the Pacific, which is developing as a potentially lucrative export commodity with increased demand from the large Pacific Islander diaspora in New Zealand and Australia.
Currently sourced from communities and low intensity smallholder plantings, Professor Underhill says the low and unpredictable supply volumes are hampering industry development and more intensive plantings need to occur.
“At 15 to 30 metres tall, breadfruit trees are highly prone to wind and cyclone damage,” said Professor Underhill. “So we’re looking at more effective canopy management practices and the development of smaller trees and potential dwarfing rootstocks.
“If successful this research could revolutionise the Pacific breadfruit industry, creating planting material that is more tolerant of cyclone wind damage, easier to harvest and more suitable to intensive production systems.”
Professor Underhill also leads two food security and food safety projects around fruit and vegetable production and postharvest handling in Samoa and Vanuatu, funded by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.