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Popular revolution in potato production in North Korea

DPRK has great potential to improve potato production (© FAO)
DPRK has great potential to improve potato production

Potato has been grown in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK/North Korea) since the late 19th century but outdated production methods, extreme weather and disease outbreaks have left the country with miserable yields far below the world average.

Although a gloomy record, it does mean that the country has the potential to make substantial gains by restructuring its potato industry and introducing new technologies. As a result, a four-year FAO, CFC (Common Fund for Commodities) and CIP (International Potato Center) project due to conclude this year, has placed potato at the heart of efforts to achieve widespread food security. It brings national and international research institutions and potato farmers together to improve all aspects of the industry from seed to storage. At a cost of US$3.5 million it is hoped that fundamental reform will provide long term benefits.

Struggle for survival
The 1990s was a bad time for arable farmers in DPRK, with a series of natural disasters wreaking havoc on food production: rice-growing areas were destroyed by the worst flooding in a century and millions of tonnes of stored grain were washed away. Then, potato crops were struck by a devastating outbreak of late blight and shortage of clean seed compounded the disaster. As many as 2 million people - nearly 10 per cent of the population - are believed to have died as a result of acute food shortages, while tens of thousands fled to neighbouring China. Today, the secretive state is still dependent on food aid, failing to achieve the self-sufficiency that underpins its long-standing policy of isolationism, and the spectre of famine looms again after severe flooding in 2007 and 2008.

Industry-wide reform

Earlier initiatives to jump-start the potato industry had achieved little: in the late 1990s, some 6000 tonnes of seed potato were brought into the county to help tackle the series of late blight outbreaks, but instead introduced new diseases. And, while DPRK had been making some progress towards propagating its own clean seed, equipment shortages slowed progress.

Collaboration between FAO, CFC and CIP aimed to revive the fortunes of potato growers by making improvements at various stages of the production process. It identified low-yielding varieties, poor quality seed and formidable storage losses as some of the key areas for action.

Improved varieties suited to the country's different climatic regions form the cornerstone of the project. Three early-maturing varieties that performed well in trials, Favorita and Zhongshu No 3 for the southern region and Zihuabai for the southern and northern highland regions, promise up to 50 per cent higher yields. CIP expects the gradual introduction of these varieties to produce an additional 165,000 tonnes of potato each year on existing acreage and further gains will be made by using additional land to grow the improved varieties.

Trials of improved potato varieties have been successful (© FAO)
Trials of improved potato varieties have been successful

Reducing post-harvest losses by developing efficient potato stores has been another major focus. A jaw-dropping half-a-million tonnes of tubers have been lost in storage every year in the country, often due to poor quality warehousing. Under the project, new low-cost stores were constructed, making the most of the country's ample supply of cement. It is hoped these upgraded stores will be replicated around the country. A sophisticated storage facility has also been built in the northern highland region to help breeders preserve the nation's core seed material from year-to-year.

Other notable achievements of the project include assisting the government in the preparation of seed certification standards, and giving breeders access to CIP's gene bank to encourage innovation. The use of True Potato Seed (TPS) from botanical seed is also on the rise and will help limit "carryover" diseases that plague seed tubers. So far around 1500 ha have been planted with TPS in the country, and more is expected. The project has also sponsored the training of over 650 farmers through Farmer Field Schools, and distributed teaching brochures to help farmers respond to challenges in the field. According to FAO, these have had an immediate impact, and the organisation expects that soon every potato farmer in the country will have access to improved planting material.

Lasting impact

While the project has identified several ways to increase potato production, difficulties remain. One major constraint is the availability of fertiliser, which is in particularly short supply in North Korea. And while progress in crop trials has been promising, extreme weather is making work very difficult: extensive flooding has restricted yields again this year, destroying many crops, including potato. Meanwhile, high fuel prices are making it difficult for seed producers to transport clean seed from the highlands to growing areas at lower altitudes.

While the project was not intended to achieve food security through potato alone, it gives due importance to the role of potato in the wider drive to alleviate hunger. And, in spite of weather shocks and the ever-present threat of famine, FAO expects that potato will now play a significant role in the overall solution to food shortages in North Korea in the long term.

Date published: September 2008


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