East Timor's chronic food shortages are easing, thanks to the development of higher yielding varieties of cassava through the ‘Seeds of Life' project, managed by the Centre for Legumes in Mediterranean Agriculture (CLIMA) at The University of Western Australia (UWA).
Cassava is a staple crop throughout East Timor and has been extensively researched, with more than 60 varieties trialled throughout the country from 2001 to 2008.
From these, two varieties, Ai-luka 2 and Ai-luka 4, have been released to East Timorese farmers, who are keenly anticipating yield increases of 51-65 per cent over local cassavas.
Ai-luka 2 and 4 have been well received by local farmers, not just for their high yields, but for their good flavour as well.
The two new varieties came from Malang, Indonesia through co-operation with the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia.
The ‘Seeds of Life' food security program, funded jointly by the East Timor Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, AusAID and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, aims to reduce hunger by lifting yields of staple food crops through improving varieties.
CLIMA Director, Professor William Erskine, said CLIMA's contribution to this vital East Timorese research on better cassava varieties had been particularly gratifying because of the greatly improved yields that have been achieved.
CLIMA has provided overall management for the project, including all its Australian-funded activities and has provided important training for East Timorese researchers at UWA.
"In a country where most families suffer from chronic food shortages and rationing for up to six months of the year, an increase in yield as high as 65 per cent in a staple food such as cassava is going to make a big difference to people's lives," Professor Erskine said.
"This breakthrough with cassava is just one of many successes with new varieties of staple crops introduced to East Timor that have produced big yield increases over local varieties.
"Another benefit is that it has increased food security and produced surpluses for local markets, sometimes for the first time," he concluded.
East Timor's Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries has now released nine new staple food crops through the ‘Seeds of Life' program.
Significant yield increases have been achieved in many new crop varieties over local cultivars, including maize, 53 per cent, peanuts, 31 per cent, rice, 23 per cent and an extraordinary 80 per cent increase in sweet potatoes, which has been accompanied by improved size and eating quality.
UWA has also been helping East Timorese agriculture by providing training for four East Timorese students, ranging from language skills for later post-graduate studies at CLIMA, through to PhD training for agricultural scientist, Marcal Gusmao.