The pictured yacon roots (Smallanthus sonchifolius) were recently seen by our colleague Mr Choo Kwong Yan on sale in various outlets of locally grown vegetables in the Cameron Highlands in Peninsular Malaysia. By all accounts yacon is a new crop in Malaysia, unheard of until recently, and we have yet to identify the grower, and from where s/he has received the original planting material of this vegetatively propagated crop.
Most of the dry matter of yacon roots consists of oligo-fructose, and the information on display next to the roots fairly accurately describes its beneficial effects on gut heath, as revealed in a number of recent studies. Originally from the Andes, but largely unknown there and absent from Andean markets until the early years of this century, yacon has rebounded from oblivion and scientific neglect after its introduction to Japan in 1983, where yacon’s chemical composition and hypoglycemic effects have been discovered.
In addition to perceived nutritional benefits, it is the crunchy and succulent texture of yacon that may have endeared it to Asian users. Within 15 years, yacon spread from Japan to China, Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan. The sighting of yacon in Malaysia suggests that the dispersal of this crop in Asia is in full swing and has now reached the Cameron highlands which –at an altitude of over 1200 masl- offer climatic conditions similar to those in the crop’s native range.
Yacon planting material is largely dispersed through informal seed systems. Unless there is proof to the contrary, we are rather confident to suspect that introductions across borders have likely been at odds with international best practices for germplasm movement, and with post-CBD thinking about national ownership and control of genetic resources. However, without the yacon development that has taken place in Asia, it is hard to see how the crop would have regained so much popularity in Peru in the last 10 years. Attribute discovery in Japan, although initially resented by Peruvian news media, eventually stimulated investment in research and value chains in Peru itself, and many farmer communities derive new income from an ancient crop plant they hardly used any longer before the current yacon boom. Thus the complex but real “access and benefit sharing” implicit in many informal crop disersals in the past is still at work, a fact conveniently overlooked in the debates about “biopiracy”.
The case of yacon also quite nicely illustrates that minor crops are no exception to the interdependency of nations with regard to crop genetic resources, suggesting the inclusion of such species in multi-lateral access schemes. There is a large number of lesser known crops that have hugely benefited local populations by dispersal outside their native range and spill-over back into native areas in terms of new varieties or product technologies.
The Chinese name for yacon now in use in Malaysia can be translated as “Snow lotus fruit”. Prices in the Cameron highlands vary between 7 and 20 Ringgit per kg (US$ 2-7). Such a high price could suggest that demand outstrips supply, a situation commonly found in slowly propagating species in an emerging market.
Interestingly, the pictured roots show cracks as in market displays in the Andes. The roots are quite brittle, and easily break upon extraction from the soil. This limits shelf life and is a supply constraint that needs to be addressed in yacon improvement. Unfortunately, yacon very rarely sets seeds, and current varieties are most likely ancient Andean farmer cultivars.