Sweetpotato: Coming of Age

From being ‘a poor mans crop, sweetpotatoes today is perceived as a commodity of high commercial value and importance for a variety of reasons including its varied utility and broad adaptability.

Locally known as "Kamote", the popularity of sweetpotato (Ipomea batatas {L} Lamk) is not just limited to being a favourite Filipino snack fare (either plainly boiled or the deep-fried sugar coated sliced sweetpotatoes ubiquitously known as "kamote cue" and "kamote fries"). The once-touted "poor man's crop" is now regarded as a "cash crop" due to its versatility and high nutritive value, making it among the most in-demand agri-commodity in the market. A certain indication of the tuber's growing recognition is its mounting production over the last three years. Figures from the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics show that sweetpotato production dramatically increased from 573,734 tons in 2007 to 572,655 tonnes in 2008 and reduced to 560,516 tonnes in 2009 due to a series of storms that battered the country that year.
From a village level commerce, pundits believe that sweetpotato is now ready to face a much bigger trade arena. With its wide variety of end-products as well as ways of utilization, sweetpotato may be the next big thing in Philippine agribusiness.

Versatile crop
Advances in research and development have transformed sweetpotato from a mere, simple food to a multi-purpose crop that can now be utilized as formulation for animal feeds and industrial starch of varied uses. According to Mr. Angelito Carpio, Senior Science Research Specialist of the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCARRD), the technologies that were developed during the 1970s and 80s are now ready to be used. “The R&D efforts over the years can now be used in different products like wine, chips for feeds for largely unmet industrial markets, plastic packed fresh roots for metropolitan markets and malls (using nutrient-rich varieties), and various snack food processing for niche markets (e.g. french fries, flavored chips, fruity products, tarts and candies, flour and flour-based products), or even ethnic food for export to Filipinos abroad such as dehydrated cubes.
Researchers at the Philippine Root Crop Research and Training Centre have already created myriad of products from sweetpotato such as: soy sauce, bakery products, sweet and sour sweet potato (similar to that of dried mango), catsup, jam, non-alcoholic beverage flavoured with guava and lemon, sweetpotato hotcake mix, sweet potato canton (fried noodle), sweet potato powder as an instant mix and thickener in various food preparations and animal feed formulation (a substitute for yellow corn up to 30 per cent level). Some research shows that sweetpotato wine is comparable to that of red wine which makes the former an export material.
But what makes sweetpotato a very promising crop? Its capacity to withstand environmental conditions as well as its suitability in many cropping systems with low input requirements makes sweetpotato the most important crop from other root crops. Moreover, it is also dubbed as a "survival crop", helping families in the uplands that have difficulty in cultivating food crops as well as a sustenance during calamities and food crisis. According to PCARRD, these exceptional features of the sweetpotato can help uplift lives of farmers once commercialization and development of the crop is implemented, hence, reducing poverty as well as being an important contributor to the food security programme of the government.

Cash crop
Currently, the government's development programmes for sweetpotato includes disaster mitigation, improved income and livelihood opportunities. “We are concentrating on not just developing the potentials but also promoting them. Because when we say 'camote', they think of it as a poor man's crop and we're trying to erase that notion,” shares Carpio.
One breakthrough that Carpio is excited about is the production of clean planting materials or CPM. The CPMs are pathogen-tested tissue cultured sweetpotato seed pieces produced using the combination of thermotherapy and meristem culture, tissue culture and rapid multiplication in net houses and multiplication farms.
One bundle of CPM, according to Carpio, costs PHP130 and is profitable due to surge in demand for better planting materials. “One farmer earned PHP40,000 from CPM. Another farmer has acquired several hectares of land just to plant sweetpotato from CPM. What’s more, the value of Kamote too has shot up-- from PHP800 to PHP1200 per sack during peak season,” tells Carpio.
Unlike other crops and agri-businesses that are adversely affected by calamities such as typhoons, sweetpotato's flexibility against weather aberrations, all the more, makes it an ideal crop. “It is making a significant contribution to both short and long-term livelihoods in communities plagued by natural calamities and seasonal agro-ecological threats such as typhoons and floods,” quips Carpio.
Moreover, sweetpotato’s high nutritive value is an attractive commodity on a health-conscious market. High on fibre, iron and calcium, as well as a good source of vitamins C, A, and B6 to name a few, sweetpotato now has a new moniker. “We now call it as 'superfood',” tells Carpio.
With the Christmas holidays approaching, supply of sweetpotatoes will not be able to meet the growing demand. “Supply in the Divisoria market (the country's main trading hub) is already depleting because the demand has skyrocketed nowadays. People, especially from Metro Manila, want an assured supply sweetpotatoes, and for that we have the province of Tarlac, one of the leading producers which supplies regularly to Metro Manila markets. So if it’s off-season, Tarlac and other provinces like Bicol should be able to supply and vice versa. So that’s one aspect that we have to look into-- the stability of yield."
Notwithstanding its potentials, sweetpotato still has to grapple with several constraints such as unstable yield, pests and diseases and the lack of information in the market. “But with these constraints, there are also recommendations,” rebuts Carpio. “For unstable yield, we can treat that through integrated cultural management (ICM). As part of the sweetpotato national programme, farmers are trained on ICM at farmers' field school. Virus indexing is also one of the components in the production of clean planting materials and in monitoring the presence of virus in the field.  And we should really remove unfavourable perception for sweetpotato because this is a multipurpose crop. I guess what we need to do now is to enhance local production and adopt the technologies that have been developed years ago.”
Carpio is optimistic that sweetpotato is the crop of the future. “With issues like food security and growing population gaining prominence and with an increasing health-conscious market, we’ll see more products or existing products of sweetpotato being modified few years from now. We have different institutions that are responsible for this task so our goal to pole-vault sweetpotato into a major commodity is achievable. If we build an industry, we can entertain more buyers and the trade will become more central. The prospects of sweetpotato are bright and it's a poor man’s crop no more.”

Gemma Delmo