Banking biodiversity in Vietnam

24 August, 2015 by (comments)
Tran Thi Ha’s field is a hotspot of root crop biodiversity.

Tran Thi Ha’s field is a hotspot of root crop biodiversity. Credit: G.Smith/CIAT

Disappearing under a thick canopy of leaves, Tran Thi Ha is quick to point out five different types of the root crop cassava on her farm – and their somewhat unusual uses. “We use the stems of cassava stakes as a medium to grow mushrooms,” she says, pointing to a line of cut cassava stems.

Nestling in the foothills of Vietnam’s Ba Vi National park, around 65 kilometers west of Hanoi, this is considered a hotspot of root and tuber crop biodiversity.  “This cassava variety is delicious – we boil the roots to eat and the leaves to feed to the fish,” she says.

But like most in her community, the majority of her cassava is a high-starch bitter variety, processed into starch. In this commune, cassava fetches around three times more income than other crops, like maize or rice.

Different varieties are cultivated by the commune’s 1,400 farmers, mostly from ethnic communities, who live higher up in the hills, such as the Muong and Dao ethnic minority groups.

Although the economic value of cassava is the key concern for most farmers here, Nguyen Van Kien, from the Plant Resources Center’s Plant Genebank Management Division in Hanoi, Vietnam, observes Tran Thi Ha’s field from a different perspective.

Nguyen Van Kien, from Vietnam’s Plant Resources Center’s Plant Genebank Management Division.

Nguyen Van Kien, from Vietnam’s Plant Resources Center’s Plant Genebank Management Division. Credit: G.Smith/CIAT

“In a small area, she has many different varieties. That is important because preserving biological diversity and different crop varieties provides diversity in our diets, and builds resilience in the environment,” he said, especially important given changing market demands and more extreme weather events.

Tran Thi Ha’s field is like a miniature version of the field genebank of the Plant Resources Center. The vast collection of 272 cassava varieties come complete with digital passport data, and back-up germplasm conserved in the field and in-vitro in the lab.

Updating genetic passports

Those passports – like something out of a futuristic sci-fi movie – contain digital information about each accession’s DNA – type, origin and collection history – a complete library of genetic reference material.

For decades, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture has worked with local partners to identify local and improved cassava varieties in farmer’s fields like Tran Thi Ha’s.

Recently CIAT is engaged in a new project to extract DNA samples from the field, shipping them to the Center’s headquarters in Colombia, to be fingerprinted with genetic markers and analyzed for diversity patterns.

Together with local partners in Vietnam, researchers will build a complete reference library of cassava collections, to evaluate cassava varieties which farmers actually have in their fields.

Bean seeds at the Plant Resources Center’s genebank are stored together with their genetic information.

Bean seeds at PRC’s genebank are stored together with their genetic information. Credit: G.Smith/CIAT

“Some farmers may say that they are growing cassava variety KM94, but it might not be genetically baked up,” explained Tesfamichael Wossen, an Impact Assessment Economist at CIAT-Asia. “First we need to understand what farmers are actually growing – and if those varieties are improved varieties, what kind they are.”

“Then we want to understand why farmers are adopting certain varieties and not others, and measure adoption rates of different varieties,” he added. “Ultimately, we want to measure the impact of adoption on household income, food security and poverty, taking the wider social context – including gender dimensions – into account.”

Understanding the genetic diversity in existing germplasm collections can enable farmers, plant breeders and researchers to develop new and more productive varieties, resistant to various pests and diseases, adapted to changing environments and resilient to the impacts of climate change.

Vital documentation for food security

The best performing varieties can then be released to farmers, through national multiplication hubs. For example, HL-S11 – a very promising high-yielding and high starch content variety, with one parent from CIAT’s breeding program in Colombia – was released this year in Vietnam.

That variety is already of interest to Tran Thi Ha, who wants access to new varieties which can help her optimize her income, and reduce vulnerability to pests and diseases among other things.

Cassava conserved at the Plant Resources Center.

Cassava conserved in-situ at the Plant Resources Center. Credit: G.Smith/CIAT

Updated information about released cassava varieties also paves the way for structured seed markets in the future, so farmers can buy disease-free varieties, with information about characteristics available.

Stef de Haan, Program management officer and a cassava breeder at CIAT-Asia, said: “Much of the conservation of genetic diversity of local varieties is in the hands of the farmers in center of crop origin. But in countries where cassava is an introduced crop, diversity contributes to livelihood diversification.”

“Plant genetic resources are the basis of food security, and an important component of agrobiodiversity and national heritage. If we don’t preserve and rigorously document what we already have, we risk losing it altogether – what we call genetic erosion.”

The adoption of improved varieties resulting from research by CIAT and its partners in the region has generated benefits worth almost US$12 billion over the last 20 years. The results from these latest data collection activities will be published next year, and posted here.

For more information contact g.smith at

This post was edited on September 17th. 

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Filed Under: Asia @en, Cassava @en, Climate Change, Crop diversity, Crops @en, Regions