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Focus on Latin America

October 2011

Nurturing One of the World's Most Versatile Plants

PhotoField instruction on improving sesame seed production in Paraguay

When the ancient Gods met to create the world, they drank wine distilled from sesame seeds, according to Assyrian legend.

Since those mythical times, the sesame seed has become one of the world's most versatile plants. It is a key ingredient in some of the globe's great cuisines and is also used to produce cooking oil, margarine, soaps, medical products, paints, lubricants and cattle feed.

The bulk of the world's nearly four million tons of annual production is grown in Asia and Africa, but areas of Paraguay also provide ideal growing conditions and the plant has become increasingly important there for a growing number of often poor farmers.

Along with its increased importance and popularity have come problems – both a deterioration in the quality of sesame harvests and decreasing yields because of environmental degradation.

In a three-way hookup which underlines the growing importance of closer international and south-south cooperation, Japan, Paraguay and neighboring Mexico are engaged in a joint project to provide enhanced training for seed breeders and improve overall seed quality.

The Faculty of Agrarian Sciences of the National University of Asuncion is implementing the three-year project which began in 2009. Visiting experts from the Mexican National Research Institute for Forestry, Agriculture and Livestock, which is renowned for its expertise in sesame production, are responsible for transferring the latest technical knowledge. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is providing technical and financial support.

The overall aim of the program in the departments (prefectures) of San Pedro, Concepcion and Amambay is to establish a vocational training program for seed breeders and a permanent data or ‘germplasma' bank for sesame seeds in Paraguay.

Sesame seed production is already an important crop for an estimated 50,000 farmers, dependents and related merchants. During bountiful harvests, it has helped to reduce poverty in some rural areas as well as school drop-out rates and emigration from the country's rural areas.

Newly introduced seed varieties encouraged farmers to expand the crop's growing area from 15,000 hectares in 2000 to 100,000 hectares today.

"The growth of sesame production has generated an important social and economic impact over this impoverished sector" of Paraguay according to Dr. Lider Ayala Aguilera, project coordinator and a researcher at the National University of Asuncion.

The triangular Paraguay, Mexico, Japan program has already resulted in increased productivity results during the last sesame harvest, helping to underline the crop's growing economic importance for large numbers of farmers in the South American country.

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