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Rooting for tubers

Potato has so far escaped the global price hikes in other staple foods (©FAO/A Benedetti)
Potato has so far escaped the global price hikes in other staple foods
©FAO/A Benedetti

Potatoes are not high on the menu for most people in Bangladesh but a three-day fair to promote the crop has been part of government efforts to increase consumption in the face of rising prices for rice and wheat. With potato generally used only as a vegetable in curry, some Bangladeshis are yet to be convinced about embracing the spud as part of their national diet. However, the government's firm stance to promote potato includes an order to increase the proportion of potato in daily military rations.

Unlike rice, wheat or maize, only around six per cent of potatoes are traded globally. Their price is therefore determined by local supply and demand and is less susceptible to the vagaries of international markets (see FAO June Food Outlook). As a consequence, potatoes have not been affected by recent food price inflation so, as consumers feel the pinch, governments are urging their citizens to grow, buy and eat more of them.

Promoting greater reliance on potato

In Bangladesh, potato is the second-most important crop after rice in terms of production. The country has for many years only had to import around five per cent of its rice to satisfy national needs but cyclones and floods during 2007 destroyed at least two million tonnes of rice forcing the government to import far more from neighbouring countries. With rice prices rising by more than 60 per cent in just one year, over two-thirds of the population are struggling to feed themselves, living as they are on less than a US$0.25 per day. Consequently, with a bumper potato crop of 8 million tonnes in 2008 - 3 million more than 2007 - the government is keen to encourage increased consumption before the crop begins to rot.

The secret of the potato's success is that it is highly adaptable to a wide variety of farming systems and, with its short vegetative cycle (maturing within 100 days) fits well into double-cropping systems with rice. The crop is easy to grow, requires little water and, and has yields two- to four-times greater than wheat or rice. But storage is a problem; Bangladesh only has some 300 cold storage facilities capable of preserving only just over 2 million tonnes - a quarter of this year's production.

The price of potato has plummeted in Bhutan (CIP)
The price of potato has plummeted in Bhutan

Lack of cold storage has also been a significant issue for farmers in neighbouring states in India, where bumper yields have also been recorded. In the state of West Bengal, farmers have recently been dumping their potatoes on the roadside in protest against poor prices (less than US$0.012 per kg). Without storage facilities, farmers are unable to preserve their potatoes until prices are higher and costs can be recovered.

Potato farmers in upland, northern districts of Bhutan are also in distress. A large proportion of Bhutanese potatoes are sold to Indian traders at auction yards in the border town of Phuentsoling. But with such bumper yields in West Bengal, demand for potatoes from Bhutan has plummeted and so has the price; potatoes are currently being sold at around US$0.01 (5 Ngultrums) per kg compared to US$0.18-0.20 (8-10 Nu) per kg last year.

The potential for potato

Despite low prices for some farmers, the lowly potato is gradually gaining greater recognition for its nutritional qualities. Rich in carbohydrates and vitamins C and B6, the potato is also a valuable source of potassium as well as protein, far superior to wheat or maize. Compared to any other major crop, the potato produces more nutrition more quickly, on less land, and in harsher climates, and up to 85 per cent of the plant is edible.

In Peru, the potato is a staple for Andean people yet many Peruvians prefer rice or bread made from imported wheat. With rising costs for fuel and other inputs, Peruvian President Alan Garcia has offered poor potato farmers emergency credit to maintain production, but he is also keen to encourage Peruvians to eat a greater proportion of potatoes to boost demand and prices.

Potato produces more nutrition more quickly, on less land, and in harsher climates than any other major staple (WRENmedia)
Potato produces more nutrition more quickly, on less land, and in harsher climates than any other major staple

A government-run food company now produces around 12,000 loaves a day made from one-third boiled and mashed potatoes and two-thirds wheat flour. And since January 2008, Peru's prisons and many public schools have been serving potato bread (papanan). It is also sold by Plaza Vea, a Peruvian supermarket chain, and is at least six per cent cheaper than bread made from wheat. More recently, the chief of Peru's Sierra Exportadora, which supports farmer co-operatives, has called on Ministers to approve the construction of 100 potato flour production plants to supply small and medium bakeries and even to export potato flour to Europe, Japan and the US.

With rising food prices and millions of people at risk of food shortages clearly there is the potential for potato to help feed the world's hungry. Countries like Bangladesh and Peru may be leading the way in encouraging greater reliance on potato but far more needs to be done to develop policies and infrastructure to overcome years of neglect if potato is to take its rightful place on the world's dining table.

Date published: September 2008


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