Oldie but goldie story of sweet potatoes traveling back to NZ

The Māori kumara would have been lost were it not for the efforts of a Yen, who collected 617 kumara varieties from all over the world during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1963, when the collection became too big for the DSIR to maintain, Dr Yen arranged for its safekeeping in three gene banks in Japan. Interest in the collection was revived in 1988 at an ethnobotanical conference organised by the DSIR. Members of Pu Hao Rangi, a Manukau-based Māori Resource Centre, journeyed to Japan and brought back 9 New Zealand kumara varieties, 4 of which were identified as pre-European varieties. These are now cultivated by several Māori groups.

I came across this feel-good story of genebank use today in connection with something else I was doing, and I was sure I’d at least pointed to it before on the blog. Too heart-warming not to have done so. Alas, I can find no evidence to that effect, so here goes. There’s a bit more about what happened in a Bioversity proceedings volume from 2001:

Dr. Douglas E. Yen of the New Zealand National Research Institute for Crops collected about 600 sweetpotato landraces from the Pan-Pacific area (Yen 1974), including some New Zealand landraces. When Dr. Yen retired from the institute, the New Zealand government decided not to maintain his collection. The U.S. and Japanese governments, who were afraid that this precious collection might be lost, took over its management in 1969. Now 362 accessions of the Yen collection are preserved in our genebank at the National Institute of Crops Science (NICS).

The collection put together by Dr Yen was of great historical significance, as he based his pioneering monograph on the ethnobotany of the crop on it. It would be nice to know if it’s still around, and where. Unfortunately, there are a number of institutes in Japan conserving sweet potatoes, and I can’t figure out which one is the National Institute of Crops Science. Anyway, here’s what happened next:

The Maori Chiefs Conference decided to send a delegation to visit Japan and bring back their landraces. On 18 November 1988, four Maori chiefs visited our institute for a special ceremony turning over their sweetpotato landraces back to them. Among our Yen collection, we returned nine accessions (Y-500, Y-501, Y-502, Y-503, Y-504, Y-507, Y-508, Y-512, and Y-513) to the Maori chiefs. Since then, the Maoris are preserving these landraces as a precious gift from their ancestors.

Now, I would have said that the National Institute of Crops Science is what is now known as the National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences (NIAS), but entering those accession numbers in their database returns sorghums, so maybe not. But I’m looking into it, fear not.

5 Replies to “Oldie but goldie story of sweet potatoes traveling back to NZ”

  1. The Institute of Crop Science, NARO (NICS) is the core research institute of the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization (NARO).

  2. “Feel good” but essentially untrue. As the NZ Government’s evidence in the Waitangi Tribunal in 2007 showed and as later supported by DNA analysis, none of the Yen collection samples involved pre-European ‘landrace’ varieties. The NZ component of the collection contained samples of the New Zealand commercial varieties from the 1950s and other imports to Government research stations stretching back to the turn of the 20th century, as well as filed collections by Mr Yen and his staff. The Government agency DSIR was responsible for finding a safe home for Mr Yen’s collection after he left for the Bernice Bishop Museum in 1966. It sent the collection to Japan and to the US. The NZ varieties were also kept in New Zealand by the Dept. of Ag Research until lost in a climatic event in the early 1980s. Disinformation and confusion dominated this story from 1988.

  3. Would be interested to know reference to the DNA evidence showing that NOT pre-European landraces in Yen collection.
    The ability to distinguish pre-European and post-European genotypes in the Pacific seems elusive.

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