The institute, the only Taiwan-based international organization, contributes to the global fight against malnutrition and poverty.
A short distance from the Southern Taiwan Science Park and its cluster of optoelectronics and green-energy companies, an institute quietly engages in vital work in an entirely different sphere. What is now known as “AVRDC – The World Vegetable Center” aims to alleviate both malnutrition and poverty around the world 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 400 grams of fruits 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 points out that “biofortified” crops – those selectively bred so as to be especially rich in nutrients – offer an alternative to vitamin supplements. “The golden tomatoes developed here are rich in vitamin A,” he notes by way of example. “However, because their color is different from 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 varieties in Taiwan and 17 in India. Besides improving diet, some of these have reduced “food miles.” Until recently, for instance, Tanzania’s biggest tomato processor and producer of ketchup had to import most of the tomato pulp it uses from China. But since the Center introduced a new cultivar with thicker skins (making for easier shipping and lasting much longer without refrigeration after harvesting), the company has undertaken to source tomatoes from 3,800 local smallholders and hopes to increase this number in the future.
“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.”
The Center’s efforts go far beyond improving vegetable varieties and helping farmers maximize yields. Researchers also identify inexpensive and convenient food-preparation methods that 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 that 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 that prey on Maruca vitrata, a moth whose larvae can decimate legume crops.
The Center is unique in being an international organization based in Taiwan. Cars driven by its expatriate staff carry quasi-diplomatic license plates, leading some Taiwanese to mistakenly believe the Center is connected to the United Nations. In fact, AVRDC was set up as an intergovernmental organization just as the Republic of China government in Taipei was leaving the UN. As the Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center, it was founded on May 22, 1971 by the United States, the Asian Development Bank, and six Asian governments: Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, South Vietnam, Taiwan, and Thailand. The Taiwan government donated 116 hectares of sugarcane fields in what is now Tainan City’s Shanhua District. The main campus was dedicated on October 17, 1973.
To better reflect its global role – it is active in Africa and Oceania as well as most of Asia – in 2008 the center rebranded itself as “AVRDC – The World Vegetable Center.” Keatinge describes AVRDC as “a UN-style agency, but not recognized by the UN or the FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization] simply because its headquarters are in Taiwan.” The Center’s status, he explains, means it is ineligible for UN or UN-derived funds. The Asian Development Bank no longer provides direct assistance.
Throughout the 1980s, the Center’s annual budget hovered around US$5 millon. During the 1990s it averaged a little over US$8 million, and by the following decade had reached approximately US$11 million. In the calendar year 2014, AVRDC received US$19.34 million in grants and other revenues, up from US$17.59 million in 2013.
Keatinge, an Irishman, believes these sums are far from sufficient. “We’re spread very thinly over so many disciplines,” he explains. “A budget of US$100 million per year, comparable to that of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), would be appropriate.” According to its website, in 2013 the Philippines-based IRRI received US$93.5 million in grants, with more than 40% of that total coming from the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a global partnership of national governments and philanthropic foundations. Beijing has blocked the Center’s efforts to join CGIAR.
“Long-term, this has impacted the funding we can receive,” laments Keatinge. The lion’s share of the Center’s budget comes from donor nations, with NGOs and for-profit companies chipping in for specific projects, he says.
In 2012, the center became a founding member of the Association of International Research and Development Centers for Agriculture (AIRCA), a grouping of nine institutions. Keatinge is the current chairman of AIRCA, which includes the Beijing-based International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR).
“The politics is beyond our control,” says Keatinge. Moving AVRDC to a country holding UN membership has been considered, “but not seriously and not recently,” he adds. “Taiwan has been very loyal to us, and we’ve been very loyal to it.”
Director-general since 2008, Keatinge holds a Ph.D. in Crop Physiology from Queen’s University in Northern Ireland. He previously held research and teaching positions in India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Turkey, and Trinidad. He plans to retire in April 2016, and later this year the center’s 15-member board will choose a successor. If the job goes to a Taiwanese, it will not be the first time, as from 1994 to 2002 the post was held by Samson C.S. Tsou.
Despite a degree of decentralization, Shanhua continues to be where most of the Center’s work is done. There, 29 international staff (among them six Americans) work alongside 186 Taiwanese. In all, the organization has 353 employees from 33 countries. Eight Taiwanese work for the Center outside Taiwan.
“We hire qualified people no matter what country they’re from,” says Mecozzi. “However, in some instances, project donors may indicate that only nationals of specific countries can be hired for particular positions.”
Because their passports contain courtesy visas issued by Taiwan’s authorities, Shanhua-based non-Taiwanese staff cannot enter the People’s Republic of China. “Taiwanese staff can visit the mainland, however, and PRC delegations come here very often,” Keatinge says. Over the past two decades, China has consistently ranked among the top five countries worldwide receiving germplasm (vegetable seeds or tissue preserved for cultivation or research) from AVRDC, which distributes seed to any country that requests it. “We share everything with them, but they’ve never given any germplasm to us,” he explains. China behaves in a similar “all take and no give” manner toward other agricultural research bodies, he adds.
A wide range of vegetables
At the end of 1973, the Center decided to focus its efforts on six vegetables: Tomatoes, soybeans, mung beans, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, and Chinese cabbage. In purely botanical terms, a tomato is a fruit, but it is classed as a vegetable by, among others, U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
In the 1980s, research began on additional crops, including cauliflower, radishes, and peppers. Work on both white potato and sweet potato strains has ceased, in large part because those staples are being thoroughly researched at the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru. However, AVRDC still works on sweet potato varieties grown not for their roots but for their leaves. In Taiwan, the latter (a rich source of vitamins C and B6) are often boiled or stir-fried for human consumption.
These days, the World Vegetable Center concentrates its efforts on six vegetables groups: Solanaceous crops (tomatoes, sweet peppers, chilis, and eggplants); bulb alliums (onions, shallots, and garlic); crucifers (the cabbage family); cucurbits (cucumbers and pumpkins); legumes (mung beans and soybeans); and traditional vegetables.
The traditional-vegetable group includes amaranth (sometimes known as Chinese spinach), bitter gourd (which has excited researchers because of its antidiabetic effects), okra, and spider plant (an herb whose shoots provide protein, beta-carotene, ascorbic acid, calcium, and iron). Falling into the same category is African eggplant, specimens of which can be seen in the Center’s Demonstration Garden. Unlike the tubular purple eggplants familiar to Western and Taiwanese consumers, African eggplants are shorter and a vivid red-orange. They contain beta-carotene, calcium, vitamin C, and iron. Some of the little-known vegetables the Center is studying are featured on its Facebook page: www.facebook.com/WorldVegetableCenter
Elsewhere in the Demonstration Garden there is Bidens pilosa, a plant also known as blackjack or cobbler’s pegs. In Taiwan and many other places, Bidens pilosa is considered an invasive weed, although some people make tea from the leaves. According to AVRDC scientists, however, the young shoots and leaves are a potential food because they contain useful amounts of vitamins C and E as well as beta-carotene. Nipple fruit (Solanum mammosum) is another unusual vegetable which Center researchers are studying for use as a valuable rootstock for vegetable grafting.
The garden contains examples of low-cost drip-irrigation systems, plus two alternatives to pesticides. One, called “farmscaping,” is the embedding among crops of certain plants known to attract birds and bats, which then eat troublesome insects. The other is use of sticky traps, which are like flypaper. Most are yellow, but blue has been found to be especially effective at countering tiny insects called thrips.
The Center’s grafting chamber enables visitors to gain a better understanding how this technique can benefit farmers unable to make large investments. In the tropics, grafting tomato scions onto eggplant rootstock allows the tomatoes to be grown during the hot-wet season, as eggplant roots can survive in waterlogged soils. After grafting, seedlings must spend about a week in a grafting chamber, where the reduced light, higher humidity, and cooler temperatures help them harden.
The gene bank
The Center’s Genetic Resources and Seed Unit, or gene bank, houses the world’s biggest collection of vegetable seeds. “We’re the guardians of this germplasm. We preserve it and share it,” says Keatinge. Companies or research institutes that ask for vegetable germplasm are charged only for shipping, and bona fide requests are never refused. Seed transfers are governed by the rules of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which guarantees access to such materials unrestricted by intellectual property rights.
Each unique member of a plant species is known as an accession, and is assigned a unique number. To date, the Center’s Seed Unit has gathered 61,280 accessions, including 15,476 soybean variants, 8,261 of various kinds of tomatoes, 8,235 of peppers, 6,742 of mung beans, and 3,713 of eggplants. All in all, 172 genera and 440 species from 155 different countries are represented.
Seeds that have been properly dried and packaged can be kept for extremely long periods. “One scientist has calculated that dried mung bean seeds can be stored for hundreds of years,” says Huang Yung-kuang, an assistant specialist in the unit. Seeds are first placed in a chamber where the RH (relative humidity) is 5-10% – drier than the Sahara Desert. The drying process takes up to three weeks, depending on the size of the seeds and their moisture content.
After packing in airtight 100-gram bags, the seeds are placed in either medium-term or long-term storage. The medium-term storage conditions are around 5 degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit) and 45% RH, while the long-term storage is much colder at no more than minus 15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit).
To date, samples of almost 20% of the accessions stored in Shanhua have been dispatched to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located on a frigid Norwegian-ruled island 1,300 kilometers from the North Pole. The Seed Vault serves as a backup facility for gene banks around the world.
Because exposure to such cold temperatures can be fatal, Huang and his team follow safety protocols. In addition to donning extra-warm clothes, staff members always work in pairs. One enters the storage area while the other waits outside. A timer is set. After 15 minutes, it sounds to remind the person inside to leave the storage chamber. If the work is not finished, the partner takes over. In case the person inside has not exited after 20 minutes, an alarm sounds in the unit’s office, and if a further five minutes elapses without an exit, the center’s security office is automatically alerted and security staff intervene.
The seed collection, which started in 1972, exceeded 23,000 accessions by 1985. By the early 21st century, it was clear that more space would soon be needed. An expansion project funded by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was completed in 2011. “We won’t have to worry about storage space for the next 30 or 40 years,” says Huang, who also notes that the newest chambers have been built approximately 1 meter above ground level to be safe from flooding.
To date, samples of almost 20% of the accessions stored in Shanhua have been dispatched to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located on a frigid Norwegian-ruled island 1,300 kilometers from the North Pole. The Seed Vault serves as a backup facility for gene banks around the world. In recent years, seed banks in Iraq and Afghanistan have been destroyed by warfare, while the major gene bank in the Philippines was destroyed by fire in January 2012, just six years after it suffered serious flood damage.
About once a year, the World Vegetable Center adds to its deposit in Svalbard. Because the Center’s collections of tomato and mung bean seeds are probably the world’s most complete, sending samples of those seeds is considered a priority, Huang says.
Keatinge supports using genetic engineering techniques where appropriate to bolster pest- or disease-resistance, or to enhance nutritional value in crops [see the separate article in this issue on GM crops]. He describes the testing regime for GM crops in many countries as “ludicrously strict,” reducing opportunities for consumers to benefit from GM breakthroughs. But because of the controversy surrounding GM food, no GM crops have been planted in the recent past in AVRDC’s fields.
By 2013, agriculture’s share of Taiwan’s GDP had shrunk to just 1.7%. Nonetheless, Keatinge is full of praise for the training and marketing assistance farmers receive from the government’s Council of Agriculture (COA) and local farmers’ associations. “The level of collaboration is splendid, and I fully agree with the ‘Small Landholder, Big Tenant policy,” he says. Under that program, started in 2009, the COA has been encouraging landowners unable or unwilling to engage in farming to lease their fields long-term to professional farmers.
“Of course, it would be nice if the younger generation could regard agriculture as a profitable sector and a good career choice,” says Keatinge. “Nevertheless, Taiwan is the world’s best exemplar of high-tech, mechanized small-plot agriculture.”