Agriculture experts in the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu are developing drought-resistant crops to address extreme temperatures and droughts stemming from global climate change.

Temperatures in Vanuatu have increased at a rate of .17 degrees Celsius each decade, according to the Pacific Climate Change Science Program. Joint research by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, the Vanuatu Meteorology and Geo-hazard Department, and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) has raised dire concerns for the future of the island nation. If carbon emissions continue at high rates, the island could face an increase of 0.4 to 1.0 degrees Celsius by 2030.

For millennia, root crops such as yams, manioc, taro, and sweet potato have been essential to the diets of indigenous people on Vanuatu. Sweet potato in particular is a staple food crop for 70 percent of the island’s population, particularly for rural people who depend on agriculture for food and income. According to Coordinator of the Vanuatu Coastal Adaptation Project (VCAP) Pakoa Leo, these crops are especially hardy, able to survive extreme weather, pests, and diseases.

“But there are new challenges as a result of climate change and as a result some of the crops of sweet potato are not as resistant,” he explained. “Vanuatu crops have been impacted by climate change, with some varieties of taro and sweet potato now challenging to grow in certain areas.”

In particular, increased temperatures, and changes in precipitation present problems for agriculture.

“It is becoming harder for farmers to rely on the same varieties of crops they have always planted, so we are experimenting with other varieties to ensure we get the most resistant crop for the current conditions,” said Leo.

Alongside other agriculture experts from the Ministry of Agriculture in Vanuatu, Leo has been crossbreeding more than 50 varieties of sweet potato to create one which can survive prolonged periods of drought. “We have used sweet potato from Solomon Islands, Fiji and other island along with Vanuatu varieties, to test which will be preferred by our farmers,” he said. “Once we successfully cultivate a certain variety, we bring the farmers in to taste and select which they prefer, then we distribute them to the farmers for their use.”

The researchers had to start from nothing, rebuilding their greenhouse after Cyclone Pam destroyed their facilities and crops in 2015.

“We have just rebuilt this greenhouse last year, and we are continuing with the work,” Leo said.

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