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324. "International Day of the Tropics" and the JIRCAS Tropical Agriculture Research Front

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Tomorrow, June 29, is "International Day of the Tropics". To celebrate this day, we would like to introduce the JIRCAS Tropical Agriculture Research Front (TARF) in Ishigaki Island. The people of Ishigaki Island refer to TARF as “Nekken”, its acronym in the Japanese language.

TARF was originally established in Ishigaki Island in 1970 as the Okinawa Subtropical Station of theTropical Agriculture Research Center (TARC) which is the predecessor of JIRCAS. It is located on a hill in the southern plains of the island. The site was originally built in 1933 by the former navy as a crash landing airport for flights to the south, and became a government-owned land after the war and was redeveloped. Located on an elevated plateau with a total area of 500 sq meters, it can be seen from an airplane, and still retains a strong remnant of the old airfield.

There are two main reasons why TARF was established in Ishigaki Island. The main reason is that the island has similar climatic and environmental conditions to the research sites conducted by JIRCAS overseas. Ishigaki Island is located about 2,000 km southwest of Tokyo and 410 km from Naha, which is geographically closer to Taiwan than Okinawa. The average annual temperature is 24.3 oC and the average annual precipitation is 2,107 mm, which is much closer to the tropical humid climate than Tokyo (average annual temperature 15.4 oC and average annual precipitation 1,529 mm). There is also a rich natural ecosystem that connects the highest mountain in Okinawa Prefecture, Mt. Omoto (526m), to the largest coral reef in Japan, called Sekisei Lagoon, which is very different from the ecosystem in mainland Japan.

TARF comprises of 21 hectares of experimental plots surrounded by windbreaks, and in these plots, we are conducting research on breeding and cultivation of sugarcane, tropical fruit trees, indica rice, and other crops suited to the climate of Ishigaki Island. We also consider the island as a closed ecosystem, and are working on the development of environment-friendly agriculture that connects mountains, villages and the sea. The site has various types of greenhouses for tropical fruit tree cultivation, sugar cane hybridization, and transgenic plant experiments, as well as facilities such as a lysimeter for observing and measuring plant roots. Using experimental test plots and facilities, we are working on the development of agricultural production technologies that can be applied to developing regions and islands in the tropics and subtropics, especially basic and fundamental research that is difficult to conduct at overseas research sites.

In the Fifth Medium- to Long-term Plan (2021-2025) starting this fiscal year, we focus on three research programs: (1) development of agricultural technologies for climate change, resource recycling and environmental conservation; (2) technology development towards building a new food system with improved productivity, sustainability and resilience, and (3) strengthening function as an international hub for providing strategic information on agriculture, forestry and fisheries, and mobilizing new research partnerships, in order to achieve the SDGs and the implementation of the “Basic Plan for Food, Agriculture, and Rural Areas” (approved by the Cabinet on March 31, 2020) and the “Green Food System Strategy", with an eye to the post-coronavirus society.

The second reason for the establishment of the TARF on Ishigaki Island is to contribute to domestic agriculture. When the center was established, there were many proposals and requests from the perspective of promoting Okinawan agriculture, and in response to these, it was decided to conduct research on agricultural technology in subtropical regions, research on the introduction and acclimatization of tropical and subtropical native crops, and research that would  promote Okinawan agriculture as a contribution to domestic agriculture. As a sub-bank for tropical and sub-tropical crops in the Agricultural Biological Resources Gene Bank Project promoted by the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization (NARO), TARF preserves and manages genetic resources of tropical crops such as tropical fruit trees and sugarcane. In collaboration with domestic researchers, we contribute to the promotion of rice and wheat breeding, and to the improvement of domestic breeding efficiency in tropical fruit trees and sugarcane through hybridization. As a result of our research on crop introduction and acclimatization, we have bred varieties of green beans, papaya, passion fruit, sugarcane, and pasture grass for southwestern islands in Japan and overseas.

As the only agricultural research institute under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) in Japan located in a subtropical environment, TARF will continue to make full use of its unique characteristics to contribute to agriculture in Japan and abroad.

Contributor: OMAE Hide (Director, Tropical Agriculture Research Front)