I finally had the chance to visit the famous World Vegetable Center Genebank of Shanhua, Tainan, which is home to 65,000 vegetable accessions, and meet with Derek W. Barchenger, the principal investigator of the National Science and Technology Council’s (NSTC) Disease Resistant Tomato and Pepper for Taiwan and the Philippines Project. Thanks to his participation in global food security projects, Barchenger now has forged an unbreakable bond with Taiwan. Even though Barchenger can’t speak much Chinese, he can point out different types of melons in fluent Taiwanese. Barchenger feels extremely lucky to live in Taiwan and ensure the future of vegetables with world-class researchers specializing in genetics, plant disease, and bioinformatics.
Picture 1: World Vegetable Center tomato and pepper breeder Derek W. Barchenger (Photo taken by Pei Lin Lin)
Extreme Weather Creating Extreme Hardship for Tomato and Pepper Farmers
“Save the vegetables,” isn’t a slogan that often makes headlines. However, its importance becomes very clear when seeing peppers getting wiped out after droughts and floods in Pakistan and bacterial wilt decimating tomato yields for small farmers in Taiwan. Pakistan boasts the world’s fourth largest annual pepper yield, but extreme temperatures and torrential rain this year have cut the typical 14,000-ton pepper harvest in half. In southern Taiwan, an unusually hot summer spread diseases such as bacterial wilt to at least forty percent of cherry tomato fields in places like Liugui, Qishan, and Meinong.
Barchenger took out his phone and showed me that peppers are “turning gray” and tomatoes are splitting apart everywhere from far off Ghana and Hyderabad, India to Taiwan’s neighbors such as the Philippines and Vietnam. Barchenger’s resolve to “save the vegetables” became even stronger after traveling to the affected areas and seeing the desperation of the farmers firsthand.
Picture 2: Peppers are being infected with disease in countries across the globe (Photos courtesy of Derek W. Barchenger)
The World Vegetable Center Hard at Work Making Crops Drought, Disease, and Pest Resistant
While looking at some of his beloved ghost pepper, Barchenger said, “I’m a pepper (both spicy and sweet) breeding specialist. The most important parts of the National Science and Technology Council Project I’m a part of is breeding disease and heat resistance to help poor farmers.”
Picture 3: Dr. Barchenger in a greenhouse showing us peppers infected with anthracnose (Photo taken by Pei Lin Lin)
According to agricultural data, tomatoes and peppers are the two most important vegetables for small farmers in tropical and subtropical climates. The world’s top plant scientists are racking their brains to find solutions for bacterial wilt and anthracnose because they are especially devastating for tomatoes and peppers. These two pathogens love hot and humid conditions. Issues with bacterial wilt and anthracnose have intensified in recent years due to extreme weather that’s prone to drought and flooding.
Fortunately, the World Vegetable Center is stepping up to protect veggies around the world. With the largest collection of vegetable germplasm of any food security program in the world, scientists at the World Vegetable Center get an amazing chance to work with an abundance of genetic diversity.
Picture 4: World Vegetable Center experimental greenhouse (Photo courtesy of the Project Office)
In the recent past, Barchenger was part of an NSTC project to fight anthracnose with scientists from the Philippines. Barchenger’s team specialized in identifying the disease resistant chromosomes for bacterial wilt in tomatoes and anthracnose in peppers. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Barchenger and his partners at the University of the Philippines Los Baños had two important tasks. The first was to collect a large number of disease specimens. Second, was running tests on the many tomato and pepper strains developed at the World Vegetable Center. His team successfully discovered many highly disease resistant strains by utilizing advanced bioinformatics technology to scan pepper genomes.
Barchenger said that heat is an important factor that impacts the growth of tomatoes. Basically, tomatoes don’t flower in conditions above 34 degrees Celsius. Therefore, Barchenger is now developing pollen that can survive in high temperatures to help farmers maintain their livelihoods despite extreme weather. Along with heat resistance, Barchenger also aims to tackle the issue of pests as well. His team is trying to find host resistance for diseases that impact tomatoes and peppers in Taiwan and the Philippines. This can help the environment because natural resistance reduces the need for pesticides. Through breeding techniques, Barchenger tries to remove detrimental genes and boost disease resistance so that they are better equipped to survive in extreme weather.
The World Vegetable Center Genebank Lifting Farmers Out of Poverty
Barchenger mentioned that his projects with the NSTC are more than just about hitting certain KPIs. This important project aims to protect farmers from disasters and lift people out of poverty. Barchenger said that his heart goes out to the many small farmers that saw during his travels around the world. He came across many women trying to earn extra money for their family by growing a few veggies and elderly folks supporting themselves in their later years by tending some plants in plots outside their house. The pain these farmers have to endure is beyond measure if their crops ever get damaged.
Barchenger’s doctoral research was in the peppers of New Mexico. For Barchenger, helping improve the local varieties of pepper is the same as helping farmers improve their lot in life. When Barchenger was still a PhD student in 2016, he started working at the World Vegetable Center’s headquarters in Taiwan. In the following years, he became a pepper breeding specialist. Barchenger now knows wherever there are peppers, there is anthracnose. Taiwan isn’t the only impacted country. Pepper farmers in places such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and India all agree that anthracnose is their worst nightmare. Just like Covid-19, anthracnose is tricky because it has different strains that make pesticides ineffective. Barchenger’s research has also shown that it’s difficult to develop host resistance in pepper because of the many different strains of anthracnose. This is similar to how vaccines for the Delta variant of Covid-19 aren’t necessary effective for the Omicron variant. However, Barchenger has discovered that the strains of anthracnose in the Philippines and Vietnam are more similar to each other than the strains found in India and Bangladesh.
When Barchenger was showing us around the World Vegetable Center, we ran into Lara, a student from New Jersey that was wearing an “Eat More Vegetables” T-shirt. She lit up when telling us her reason for being at the World Vegetable Center was the same as Barchenger—the world class equipment such as automated data collectors, cameras that can monitor plants around the clock, and impotence flow spectrometers. But more importantly, Lara said that in Taiwan she can work with the world’s top plant pathologists to “Save the Vegetables.”
Picture 5: A recent arrival to Taiwan—Lara from Rutgers University (Photo Taken by Pei Lin Lin)
The World Vegetable Center is the world’s first of its kind. The center relies on countless farmers and agricultural researchers to preserve over 65,000 types of vegetable accessions. The World Vegetable Center also brings together molecular geneticists, plant pathologists, bioinformaticians from around the world to adapt these accessions to local conditions and create disease, heat, and pest resistant plants. The scientists at the World Vegetable Center are now a kernel of hope for veggies amid increasingly unpredictable and extreme weather.
Picture 6: Seeds being stored at the World Vegetable Center (Photo taken by Pei Lin Lin)
Pei-lin Lin obtained her B.A. in Philosophy from Fu Jen University and her M.A in Political Science from National Taiwan University. Lin embodies a humanistic literacy and political sensibility. In recent years, Lin has collaborated with the Taiwanese government to shoot videos promoting various policies. Currently, Lin splits her time between running a Chan Lands Ltd., Zongdipan, making documentary films and hosting the podcast “Human Translation Machine.” In the past, Lin has been a reporter for several media outlets and the anchor of shows on TVBS, CBC and Da Ai Television. While at Da Ai Television, Lin’s piece “Muhammad Yunus- Savior of the Poor,” was nominated at the First Taiwan Golden Wheel Awards for Outstanding Television News Feature.