More than 27 participants from international and regional institutes and four Pacific countries participated in two workshops, from 24 to 29 April 2015, in Madang and Port Moresby, to develop plans to assist in securing the threatened international coconut collection of the South Pacific, which is held at the Stewart Research Station in Madang, Papua New Guinea (PNG). The threat comes from the Bogia Coconut Syndrome (BCS) disease complex, which is caused by a phytoplasma that not only affects coconuts but also banana and betel nuts.
The disease is affecting these crops in farmers’ fields located approximately 15 kilometres from the field collection at the Stewart Research Station, which is host to the International Coconut Genebank for the South Pacific under the management of the Cocoa Coconut Institute Limited (CCIL). As one of the five International Coconut Genebanks under the International Coconut Genetic Resources Network (COGENT), the genebank holds 55 accessions of coconut varieties – these were acquired mainly from PNG and the rest were exotic varieties from other countries. PNG is the host country for the South Pacific collection under the tripartite agreement (Article 15) of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA), along with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and Bioversity International as host of COGENT. Globally, coconut genebanks are facing a number of threats, which include pests and diseases, droughts, environmental disasters, land use changes and human encroachment. Some of the existing international – and many national – collections have also faced threats, which have required appropriate remedial actions to save them from complete loss. Coconut is not like other crops that can be stored for long periods through seeds; for example, storing rice seeds in a genebank. Conservation of coconut is currently only possible with live trees in fields, however the results of recent developments in modern biotechnology methods on coconut cryopreservation using embryos and pollens look promising. The two workshops enabled key participants to share their experiences and thoughts, and to contribute to the roadmap in support of PNG and the coconut community. The workshop held in Madang was opened by Acting Administrator of Madang Provincial Administration, Mr Peter ToRot, who said: “I must thank the international community for the concerted effort to mobilise resources for holding these meetings. About 70 per cent of people in Madang, with a population of 493,906, depend on coconut for food and income generation.” Dr Paula Bramel, Deputy Executive Director, of the Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT), based in Germany, led the meeting. “The overall purpose of the two workshops is to develop a plan for securing the diversity of the International Coconut Genebank for the South Pacific in a safe place identified by PNG.
The key partners of the coconut community are here to contribute to the roadmap and support Kokonas Indastri Koporesen and CCI in their planning for the relocation of the collection to Punipuni, once it has passed screening tests in a quarantine site on Misima Island in Milne Bay Province. Discussion will also include safety duplication in Samoa and Fiji.” PNG Secretary for the Department of Agriculture and Livestock, Dr Vele Ila’ava, attended the Port Moresby workshop and expressed support for the preventive work: “The Bogia disease is lethal and has potential to affect the lucrative oil palm industry, which earns PNG two billion kina (approximately USD 740 million) a year. Bogia disease also affects other food and cash crops such as banana and betel nuts (areca). The department supports the deliberations and appreciates the support of the global community.” COGENT Secretary and Coordinator, Dr Alexia Prades, expressed her appreciation to all partners present: “COGENT supports the outcome of the meetings and is willing to play an effective role with PNG hosting the international coconut genebank for South Pacific, global and regional partners, to address key concerns from all of the 39 COGENT coconut producing countries’ members.” Mr Uron Salum, Executive Director of the Asian and Pacific Coconut Community (APCC), indicated that “APCC is willing to work with PNG and partners on a way forward. APCC will also propose a meeting towards the end of the year to further materialise safety duplication to future hosts of the international genebank, Fiji and Samoa. Apart from conservation, product development is crucial in the Asia-Pacific region and APCC will facilitate such collaboration amongst Asia-Pacific coconut communities wherever permissible between countries and institutes.” The Philippines, one of the leading coconut growing nations, was also invited, and Mr Ramon Rivera, Division Chief (III) of the Zamboanga Research Centre from the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA), shared his expertise on coconut genebank management, varietal improvement and development. “Philippines, through PCA, is very keen to collaborate with the South Pacific countries on disease containment, coconut research and product development through APCC, COGENT and SPC under bilateral agreements,” he said. The threat of BCS to infect other important industrial crops, such as banana, areca and oil palm, is also a serious concern for Samoa and Fiji, future hosts of the international genebank. Misa Konelio, Assistant Chief Executive Officer, Samoas Ministry of Agriculture, visited Madang: “The impact of Bogia disease on coconuts and other crops is very serious. I thank our government for their support to host and transform the national coconut genebank to the next level to become an international genebank using clean material from other countries.” “Witnessing the severity of the Bogia disease affecting coconuts in Madang is a big concern for the region, and we need to act now,” elaborated Dr Apaitia Macanawai, Acting Director of Research for Fiji’s Ministry of Agriculture. Other Pacific Scientists that attended the meeting included Dr Roger Malapa from Vanuatu Agricultural Research Training Centre, Tony Gunua, Plant Pathologist, and Valerie Saena Tuia, Genetic Resources Coordinator from SPC, Fiji. They contributed to the logistics and roadmap from the perspective of biosecurity for safe relocation to a new site, including policies for exchange and review of alternative methods for preserving coconut using embryo culture and cryopreservation based on recent studies in Australia, India and Philippines. Dr James Kaiulo, Managing Director of Kokonas Indastri Koporesen (KIK), in closing the workshop, said: “It was an invaluable learning experience, as expertise in the areas of biosecurity, breeding and conservation contributed to laying the foundations for the roadmap for addressing the Bogia Coconut Syndrome in relation to the transfer of the South Pacific Coconut Genebank to a safer location in Milne Bay Province in PNG. KIK will work closely with all the partners in finalising the roadmap with budget estimates in order to secure funding for the transfer of the genebank.” Partners that supported the emergency response to pest and disease outbreaks in PNG include Global Crop Diversity Trust, SPC, APCC, Bioversity International, CIRAD (Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement), COGENT, PCA, and scientific and technical institutions in PNG. The workshops were funded by the Australia Centre for International Agricultural Research and organised by the GCDT in collaboration with the KIK, CCI, University of Queensland, SPC, and COGENT.