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How studying peach palm in tropical Latin America can help us understand the potential of diversity.

Maarten van Zonneveld, Associate Scientist in diversity analysis for conservation and use, based in Bioversity International's Colombia office.

A new open access research paper looks at peach palm in tropical Latin America and its implications for biodiversity conservation, natural resource management and human nutrition, with contributions from scientists at CIAT, CIRAD and Bioversity International.

As stresses on global food production, particularly from climate change, start to take effect, crop and varietal diversity could enhance options for future food security. A new jointly-published review paper takes a multi-disciplinary look at a regionally important tree crop - peach palm (Bactris gasipaes) - to understand how knowledge of intraspecific diversity can contribute to biodiversity conservation, natural resource management and human nutrition. 


We interview one of the paper’s co-authors Maarten van Zonneveld, based in our Cali Office in Colombia, to find out more: 

Q: Why is Peach Palm an important crop for smallholder farmers in Latin America? 


A: Peach palm is a really versatile palm tree that is mainly cultivated by smallholder farmers in agroforestry systems here. It has been grown in tropical Latin America since pre-Colombian times and is an important source of energy and nutrition in local diets. Here in south Colombia, Valle de Cauca, peach palm is often consumed as a street snack although it is an acquired taste. When cooked, it’s a bit like roasted chestnut, and is traditionally served with salt and honey. Personally, it’s one of my favorite street snacks in Cali. 

Q: Why did this study focus on peach palm genetic diversity? 


A: Peach palm is a regionally important crop with high genetic diversity. However, as with many other crops, little research had been done to fully understand its diversity, revealed in landraces, local selections and existing varieties, which can enhance its potential for new uses and increased income opportunities. 


Combining a diversity study with a market and value chain analysis had not been done before for this species. Promising local selections conserved in genebanks can be propagated for direct use in production systems or in participative genetic improvement programmes. This makes peach palm a great model crop to generate an integrated set of recommendations on sustainable resource management and improving livelihoods through a better use of crop or tree genetic diversity.        



Q: How can understanding peach palm diversity contribute to smallholder livelihoods? 


A: Economically, peach palm fruits and hearts (the core of a palm stem that is consumed as a vegetable) are already important in Latin America for smallholders as a source of income, and the market for freshly cooked fruit snacks is expanding. We have seen success with other neglected and underutilized species such as quinoa in the Andean region and we are starting to see peach palm being sold in areas where more wealthy customers can be found, such as Cali airport. This means higher prices can be obtained. 




Within Valle de Cauca (where Cali is located), CIAT estimates that the peach palm economy could be valued at 10 million dollars a year. And this is just one of the many places in tropical Latin America where peach palm products are consumed. 


Once you start to look into trait diversity such as fruit taste and fatty acid content in local crop or tree varieties such as those of peach palm, you start to see an untapped resource that provides opportunities for local diets and income generation. High fruit quality and new product development offer commercial alternatives for smallholder farmers. We need to find out how to link this diversity to value chains and marketing opportunities for these farmers. 




A better knowledge of the diversity of commercial traits, which can be determined through morphological, agronomic and biochemical evaluation, reveals opportunities for marketing. It is also necessary to better understand how to establish and strengthen value chains that can use this genetic diversity for the benefit of farmers and other actors. This should be combined with research on improvements in harvest and post-harvest management practices can extend the shelf-life of the fruit. It requires a multi-disciplinary team to find answers to this wide range of questions. 


Q: What about its contribution to local diets? 




A: Peach palm fruits can have high nutritional properties. They are a good source of oil and starch and some local varieties also have a high content of fatty acids, vitamin E and carotenoids. But levels of nutritional properties vary in different varieties, as does taste and market appeal. For example, studies in Brazil show that customers there prefer the red, moderately oily fruits of medium weight (Clement and Santos 2002*). The lack of consistency in fruit quality is also a factor that affects market opportunities. Understanding more about the variation among existing local varieties with specific traits can show how to meet some of these requirements. With this study we are able to identify promising varieties with high nutritional value. They can be evaluated further in collaboration with smallholders and entrepreneurs and propagated to be planted more widely in production systems. 


Q: This study was the result of collaboration between Bioversity International, CIRAD and CIAT. How did this collaboration benefit the research? 




A: Taking a multidisciplinary research approach is vital if we are to better understand the potential of the diversity of locally important species such as peach palm for improving livelihoods. This collaboration allowed us to carry out multiple activities including analytical laboratory studies as well as speaking directly to the women that sell the fruits on the street to better understand the daily problems that they face. 


Bioversity International brought experience in diversity analysis and the conservation of plant genetic resources, as well as our network of collaborators, including those who maintain local and regional peach palm genebanks, and our knowledge of national and international procedures to access genetic materials for research. CIAT brought their expertise in agronomic and marketing aspects gained from work with several communities that grow peach palm in the Colombian Pacific region. CIRAD carried out the biochemical and nutritional analyses, which was a really important contribution. 




Q: Why is it important to use as well as conserve crop genetic diversity of trees such as peach palm? 


A: Discovering a wide range of interesting properties within the genepool of a crop or tree and linking them to better local diets and new uses for market specialization contributes to conservation through planting in farmers’ fields. But it is also true to say that we cannot conserve all diversity on farm so there is also an important role for genebanks.

Complementary approaches, which pay farmers to conserve diversity (Payments for Agrobiodiversity Conservation Services) can also help conserve genetic traits for future use. Market success can assure the conservation on farms of different varieties for specific needs and can also reduce diversity through the market demand for certain standards in fruit quality and shape. Complementary approaches are necessary if we are to conserve diversity that has no direct commercial value. 



Q: What is next? 



A: We are continuing to work with CIAT and CIRAD to further analyze the morphological, biochemical and molecular diversity of the samples of peach palm maintained in living genebanks maintained at CATIE in Costa Rica and INIA in Peru. This will allow us to better understand how much genetic variation is conserved in these collections and to identify materials with interesting traits. This information will be returned to the managers of peach palm collections who can share this information with potential users of the materials.


Bioversity International is also carrying out other, larger multidisciplinary research projects on other crops such as chilli peppers to understand how a better use of crop genetic diversity can improve smallholder farmers’ income generation and the conservation of plant genetic resources. 




Download the paper - Peach Palm (Bactris gasipaes) in tropical Latin America


Clement CR, Santos LA (2002) Pupunha no mercado de Manaus: Prefereˆncias de consumidores e suas implicac¸o˜es. Rev Bras Frutic 24(3):778–779