Coconut Industry Board developing gene banks
The Coconut Industry Board office on Waterloo Road in the Corporate Area

RECOGNISING the need to expand coconut farming into low-density areas across Jamaica, the entity responsible for protecting the industry says it is using technology to conduct GIS mapping of varieties of the nut grown in Jamaica.

The initiative, which is now in the pilot phase, will result in the creation of gene banks at two major agro-parks run by the Coconut Industry Board (CIB) — Plantain Gardens in St Thomas and Spring Gardens in Portland.

According to CIB botanist Chantelle McTaggart, the project will help the CIB with conservation management of coconut varieties.

"We have over 32 varieties at our gene banks, one at Plantain Gardens and one at Spring Gardens," she informed Jamaica Observer recently.

"The one at Plantain Gardens has been undergoing restoration, and in that restoration project we have applied GIS mapping — or basically creating maps of our gene bank — and it has this tool where we can collect data about the varieties and have it displayed on an online platform," McTaggart said.

For the project the CIB has partnered with the National Spatial Database Management branch to developed tools for using the GIS online system. The mapping process will allow the botanist and her team to collect data on the varieties at each agro-park, their location, the diseases which affect them, and the yield of the nut.

Upon completing the data collection process the information is transferred to a database management platform.

"This is summarised in the online platform which is being managed by CIB. The online platform allows individuals with interest in coconut farming to see what varieties perform optimally in Jamaica," McTaggart said.

"We are now updating our website so we can always create a link for public access to see that information," she added.

So far, data collected for the gene bank on the various germ plasm or varieties have been used solely for research purposes. As part of that process the CIB conducts what is called characterisation and evaluation of coconut varieties "under certain conditions to pick the best of the best".

However, McTaggart believes that identifying and preserving germ plasm for research purposes have limited the function of the gene bank.

"Ideally you'd want [to provide] resource material for persons who would want to grow in the coconut industry," the botanist stated, especially with the CIB looking to boost coconut tree cultivation outside of the eastern section of Jamaica

Research on the coconut varieties at the gene banks should also help to determine what species or gene pools are suitable for growth in other parishes.

"That's the direction where we want to go. When we do our characterisation we look at the physical attributes of the plant but we can also determine which variety is beneficial to that environment," McTaggart told the Business Observer.

Reiterating that the initiative is in its pilot phase, she said the CIB has plans to replicate the gene bank project to its other farms. The project, she added, will complement an annual survey conducted by the CIB to determine the yield of coconut varieties for the current year, and will forecast as well the yield for years to come.

As part of the gene bank initiative the CIB is also developing standard operating procedures for providing better information to farmers and deepening the characterisation of coconuts and how they fare in different environments. This, McTaggart said, should result in greater output of the fruit.

The standard operating procedures will assist the CIB in determining what areas and coconut varieties are more susceptible to diseases, such as lethal yellowing and bud rot. The local coconut industry was almost wiped out after being threatened by the lethal yellowing disease for more than two decades, starting in the 1980s.

The CIB will seek to extend the GIS mapping to local privately owned farms.

With Jamaica being the only country in the Caribbean with a coconut gene bank, the CIB also aims to lend its expertise to other Caribbean Community territories.

BY JOSIMAR SCOTT Senior reporter

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