Crop Research Enhancing Agricultural Production


Several activities aimed at enhancing agricultural output, have been undertaken by the Crop Research Unit of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Research and Development Division, situated at the Bodles Research Station in St. Catherine.
These activities are mainly in the areas of field and horticultural crop research, orchard research, and plant germplasm development.
Acting Principal Research Director in the Division, Michael Pryce tells JIS News that the field crop research project entails the screening of vegetables, such as tomato and scotch bonnet pepper, as well as herbs and spices, such as ginger and sorrel, for viruses.
One of the known viruses is the yellow leaf curl, transmitted by a white fly, which primarily affects tomatoes, causing stunting. The affected plant is characterized by chlorosis, mottling and puckering of the leaves, and reduced yield. Other diseases include corn earworm and aphids.
In addition to the screenings, Mr. Pryce says germplasms have been established and maintained for a number of crops. A germplasm is a collection of genetic resources for an organism or plant. In the case of plants, the germplasm may be stored as a seed collection, or for trees, as saplings in a nursery.
Germplasms facilitate research to analyze the properties of plants in order to see how best to maximize on potential output. They also serve to ensure that there is an availability of plant supplies to replenish cultivations which may sustain damage and destruction in varying forms, such as flooding or viral attacks. Crops for which these have been established include: corn, roots and tubers, such as cassava and sweet potato. “One of the things that we do is to ensure that we have germplasms of certain varieties and cultures of crops for future research work, which (on completion) are released to the public,” Mr. Pryce advises. He points out that cassava and sweet potato germplasms are established and maintained at three main locations. These are the research stations at Bodles, and Montpelier in St. James, both of which focus on cassava, and the facility at Top Mountain, St. Andrew which, along with Bodles, concentrate on sweet potato.
In the area of horticultural crop research, Mr. Pryce tells JIS News that the unit undertakes work on several varieties of crops, mainly scotch bonnet pepper and pumpkin, aimed at enhancing their key properties.
“We have an on-going programme for breeding a virus-resistant scotch bonnet pepper, (with) which we have had several successes. We expect to release two new lines to the public shortly,” he informs.
In addition to peppers, the disease-resistant work undertaken also include tomatoes, and according to Mr. Pryce, these two crops are targetted because, “they are economically important (to Jamaica) for both export as well as local consumption.”
“They are susceptible to virus-borne diseases, which are not easy to control. In fact, once the virus gets into the plant. that’s it, the plant is on its way down. So we have to breed for varieties, (called) cultivars that are not susceptible to viruses. We are seeing some very promising work with regard to a resistant scotch bonnet pepper, and we have had some success with tomatoes, having screened over 2,000 cultivars over the last four years,” the Acting Director reports.
According to Mr. Pryce, there have been positive results based on the work undertaken. “There is a much improved tomato yield (and the) scotch bonnet (pepper) yield has gone up,” he notes.
For pumpkin, he says that the unit has been developing lines of pumpkin with the desired horticultural characteristics of shape, flesh colour, and culinary quality.
“This has (actually) been on-going since 1996, (and is) a long research programme. A couple years ago, we released a new variety of pumpkin called the Bodles Globe, which, as the name suggests, is globe-shaped. The main characteristics are thickness of flesh, a flesh colour (that) was good, (and) it had a very good culinary quality, and uniformity of shape,” Mr. Pryce points out.
He explains that the uniformity of the pumpkin’s globe shape facilitates relatively easy packaging, particularly for export. “We are nearing the release of another variety (of pumpkin), probably during the course of this year,” he adds.
The unit has also been engaged in the production of seeds for planting, and establishing a “seed bank,” which include Bodles Globe pumpkin seeds, according to Mr. Pryce.
“We are the only certified producers of Bodles Globe pumpkin seeds, (and) I think we are the only producers in the country of certified scotch bonnet (pepper) seeds that are free of virus,” he says.
Mr. Pryce points out that where there is the likelihood of plants or crops being lost, the unit endeavours to maintain germplasms, both for research, and release to the public. “We also try to ensure that we have an emergency stock of seeds to deal with eventualities like a hurricane, so that we can have these to be released,” he adds.
Several activities have also been undertaken in the area of plant protection by the Ministry of Agriculture’s Plant Protection Unit, primarily in entomology – the scientific study of insects – with particular focus being placed on the yam weevil. “We are looking at the biology and control of the yam weevil. It is very widespread in yam growing areas, (such as Trelawny),” he notes.
“It impacts (the) productivity of yams and the need for chemical treatment of the tuber. (To this end) we want to ensure that we use as little chemicals as possible, because that can create problems,” Mr. Pryce tells JIS News.
The Pink Hibiscus Mealy Bug is another insect receiving much attention from the Plant Protection Unit. The insect affects all crops, and Mr. Pryce advises that a continuous management programme is being developed to deal with it.
“There is a parasite or parasitoid, (which is) a special wasp, that is used against the bug, that we are checking on to rear in Jamaica. Most of our efforts (currently) have been based on importing (the wasp),” he informs.
Mr. Pryce points out that the unit has released the parasitoid wasp in Portland, where the Pink Mealy Bug was initially discovered, adding that “the results have been very promising, in terms of the management.” He adds that the wasp has also been released in sections of Kingston where the bug was also discovered last December, pointing out that this effort has also yielded positive results.
“The Pink Mealy Bug is here to stay, it’s not going to go away (entirely), we can’t get rid of it; so what we have to do is manage it, and we have seen where the parasitoids have established themselves and have been controlling the population (of pink mealy bugs),” he says.
In the area of phytosanitary research, Mr. Pryce says the main division with this responsibility, the Post Entry Quarantine (PEQ) unit, has established and been maintaining a repository of disease-free citrus germplasms, produced locally as well as imported. These are aimed at providing replacements for fruit trees that were destroyed by the dreaded citrus tristeza virus (CTV).
For the long term, he says the Research and Development Division, through the Crop Research Unit, will be undertaking continuous research, focussing particularly on the development of greenhouses, which he described as “protected cultivation”. He points out that “we will be looking at various aspects of research to guide the development of this industry.” Work is also expected to continue on the scotch bonnet pepper and pumpkin research.
Of importance, Mr. Pryce says, will be the development of indigenous alternatives to corn, which is used in livestock feed, in light of global developments pertaining to the movement in price of grains.
Regarding the PEQ unit, Mr. Pryce tells JIS News that it is expected to increase its screening of imported plant material to ensure that viruses and pests external to the island do not slip in.
This thrust at increased monitoring is to be enhanced with a planned merger between the PEQ unit and the Plant Quarantine unit, which has responsibility for the movement of material through the island’s ports of entry.

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