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Nuclear Techniques Help to Revive Ginger Production in Jamaica

JAM5013 - Improving Crops by Using Experimental Mutagenesis and Diagnostic Technologies

Irradiated ginger mutant lines are under development and observation in the growth room, which was upgraded with support from the IAEA and FAO. (Photo: Scientific Research Council of Jamaica)

Jamaica, once known as the world’s leading producer of ginger, has fallen from the ranks and become a victim of widespread diseases affecting ginger cultivation. Ginger production has steadily declined on the Caribbean island over the last 20 years, affecting farmers’ income and livelihood.  

“Some farmers are losing more than half of their harvests due to diseases affecting large swaths of land cultivated with ginger,” said Ruth Simpson, an agricultural consultant for the Environmental Health Fund Project, a national organization working to support the environment in Jamaica.

The IAEA, in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), is supporting Jamaica by developing new ginger varieties, tolerant to prevailing diseases. While the IAEA and FAO have supported experts all over the world in breeding over two dozen different crops, it is the first time that nuclear techniques are used to improve ginger. With these techniques, high-quality ginger varieties are being developed to increase the prices farmers can fetch locally and for their exports on the international market.

Rhizome rot and declining crops

The main disease affecting ginger production in Jamaica is Ginger Rhizome Rot (GRR), which kills the plants it infects. Caused by fungi, bacteria and worms, the disease leads to rot inside the plant and turns its leaves yellow, as they wilt and die. The prevalence of GRR disease has resulted in over 60 per cent of yield losses in major ginger producing areas of Jamaica.

“Rhizome rot is spread unintentionally using infected seeds from the previous crop, which may appear normal and healthy,” said Ryan Francis, Team Leader in the Biotechnology Department at the Scientific Research Council (SRC) in the capital Kingston. “It may be spread also through soil, irrigation water and rain splash to adjacent plants.” Rhizome rot can survive in the soil for an extended period of time and can easily be transferred from one location to another, he added.

Experts from the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture have been working with scientists at the SRC to develop high-quality ginger varieties tolerant to GRR disease. To date, over 120 lines of ginger plantlets – young or small plants – have been developed and are under screening for improved traits. New ginger varieties developed from irradiated plant material in tissue culture have shown high levels of tolerance to the disease in a laboratory-based screening protocol that was applied with technical guidance from the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre.

Those tolerant mutant lines have been selected for further assessment under field conditions (see What is plant mutation breeding?). Plant regeneration using tissue culture and irradiation were undertaken at the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre with the participation of Francis, who was trained on the technique at the same time. This has effectively proven that mutation induction through calibrated radiation combined with tissue culture is an effective way for improving vegetative crops like ginger. It is expected that newly improved mutant varieties of ginger could be available in three to four years, much sooner than with other breeding methods, which typically take more than double or triple that amount of time to yield new varieties.

“This project will increase the availability of high-quality ginger in Jamaica, which will meet the expectations of our farmers and work towards stabilizing the production of ginger for local consumption and export,” said Shishca Higgins, Molecular Biologist at the SRC.

Long term crop improvement

Through its technical cooperation programme, the IAEA has supported national training workshops, international fellowships and expert missions focused on plant pathology and methods in crop improvement, which has led to the development of screening protocols that can be used to identify and select improved ginger varieties in Jamaica. Facilities, such as a screenhouse and tissue culture laboratory, have been upgraded to aid in the development and selection of new ginger varieties tolerant to GRR disease.

“Nuclear applications have the potential to develop new varieties of ginger with inbuilt tolerance to pathogens during crop growth,” said Isaac Kofi Bimpong, plant breeder and geneticist at the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre. “This approach is expected to lead to the production of high-quality ginger with appreciable yields to prevent the high economic losses currently being experienced by local farmers.”

Irradiated ginger plantlets in the shade house during growing season in 2019. (Photo: Scientific Research Council of Jamaica)

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