By Prince Darius A. Lina and Editha G. Cagasan, Visayas State University 

Affordable and easy-to-grow, rootcrops have become a primary source of sustenance for many people in developing countries. In the Philippines, four distinct rootcrops stand out. These are cassava, sweet potato, taro, and yam. These and other rootcrops are the subject of research conducted by PhilRootcrops in VSU, in an effort to expand and improve the rootcrop industry.

Cassava (Manihot esculenta) is a low-maintenance rootcrop that is considered the third largest source of staple carbohydrates in the world, next to rice and corn. It is quite popular in developing countries as it is highly drought-tolerant and can grow even on marginal soils. Aside from direct consumption, cassava has increasingly been sought after for the production of delicacies like ‘pitsi-pitsi’, ‘espasol’, ‘lidgid’, and the like.

Cassava can significantly decrease total cholesterol levels, reduce levels of low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (considered as “bad” cholesterol), and may help lower triglyceride levels due to its high total dietary fiber content (Trinidad, 2010). Cassava is a basic staple to 500 million people in the tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world (PCAARRD, 2007).

Commercially competitive applications of cassava flour and cassava starch have also risen as the production of cassava cakes and cassava chips have started hitting the market. Cassava flour has even found to be a potential alternative for wheat flour. With its mild, neutral flavor and soft, powdery texture, it can be used as a wheat flour replacement in many baked products. This is why it is increasingly sought after by people with gluten intolerance. But while studies and new technologies for cassava processing have been quite promising, support for cassava cultivation has been minimal, as the focus of the agricultural sector has been on rice and corn.

Sweet potato (Ipomea batatas) is possibly the most famous among the rootcrops in the Philippines. Commonly known as ‘camote’, it is eaten as staple food where rice is unavailable. It is prepared by either boiling or sugar glazing. There are many existing varieties of sweet potato in the Philippines. These tuberous roots are rich in antioxidants like anthocyanin and beta-carotene, which are beneficial for fighting cancer. With its low glycemic index, sweet potato is also a safe food alternative for people suffering from diabetes. Wines from sweet potato have also been produced by the Department of Food Science and Technology (DFST) of VSU.

Taro (Colocasia esculenta) is famous in the Philippines as its leaves are cooked into ‘laing’–the famous Bicolano specialty. Its corns are commonly served in soups as a vegetable. Cassava and taro can survive extreme weather conditions. While cassava can survive drought and low-moisture conditions, taro can survive flooded conditions as it thrives in well-irrigated paddies and upland areas with abundant rainfall.

PhilRootcrops and DFST successfully created wine from taro and black rice called ‘Tarroz’. Taro is high in dietary fiber, vitamins A, C, E, B6, folate, as well as magnesium and potassium.

Yams are good sources of vitamin B6 that breaks down a substance called homocysteine, which can directly damage blood vessel walls. It is also a good source of potassium, a mineral that helps control blood pressure. Yam’s complex carbohydrates and fiber deliver the nutrients gradually, slowing the rate at which their sugars are released and absorbed into the bloodstream.

Yam (Dioscorea alata L.) are good sources of essential amino acids like phenylalanine and threonine. These starchy tubers come from a perennial herbaceous vine of the Dioscorea family and have a number of existing varieties. The purple yam variety, popularly known as ‘ube’, is well loved in the Philippines because of its sweetness. It is often served or used as an ingredient in desserts such as cakes, ice cream, and ‘halohalo’. Rootcrops have long been seen as mere alternatives when rice is not available. The “poor man’s crop” stigma has placed it in the lower bracket against commercially available processed foods. Despite being a healthier choice for snack items, people still prefer processed food over rootcrops. Rootcrops are also good sources of starch, which can potentially substitute starches produced from more expensive base crops. Rootcrop cultivation does not require much effort; nor does it incur heavy maintenance costs as compared with other staples like corn and rice. But this advantage has not been tapped because of the lack of attention and funding.

Winning the cause of the poor man’s crop: To coordinate and monitor plans and research for the industry’s development, PhilRootcrops was established through Presidential Decree 1107 issued on March 21, 1977. PhilRootcrops is mandated to lead the country’s rootcrops research, development, and extension (RDE) activities. Since its establishment, RDE efforts in breeding, pest management, tool development, and postproduction technology have steadily come forward.

PhilRootcrops implements four main programs:

• Food Program – aims to improve and use diverse rootcrops for food. Processing, packaging, and shelf life improvement are studies and implemented to provide rural and peri-urban farms a significant advantage. So far, a number of food products had already been developed by researchers from PhilRootcrops and VSU-DFST. These include bakery, fried, and fermented products (including wine from sweet potato and taro) as well as improved native delicacies.

• Starch Program – aims to capitalize on the starch-rich nature of rootcrops and understand their properties and potential applications better. This assures good matching of rootcrop starches to products that will fit their unique properties.

• Feed Program – focuses on expanding the market of dried chips from rootcrops and improving production and processing efficiencies. Cassava has long been utilized as livestock feed in the Philippines and other Asian countries as well. Through integration of cassava production, feed milling, and livestock production, market expansion is made possible. Mechanization of production and processing methods through the application of different technologies derived from research will also greatly improve product quality and production efficiency.

Taro is an ideal food for those who are trying to lose weight, because of its low caloric content. It has a low glycemic index. It is highly digestible and has high levels of fiber, and it has also hypo-allergenic properties. -Brown and Valiere, 2004

• Special Program – aims to provide the people of Mindanao access to developed technologies on cassava. Since Mindanao is a cassava production hotspot in the country, the people of Mindanao will greatly benefit from technologies derived from research. The program also aims to improve the traditional processing methods used to allow for production and quality improvement, and to establish linkages for market expansion.

Since PhilRootcrops’ creation, a number of technologies that can help improve the rootcrops industry in the country have been developed. These technologies include high-yielding and pest-resistant rootcrop varieties, improved cultural management practices, pest control methods, production tools and implements, postharvest handling and storage technologies, processing machines, primary processed products (chips, starch, flour, and grates), quality rootcrop-based food products, and animal feeds. (DOST-PCAARD Fiesta Rootcrops issue)

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s February 2018 issue.