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Pushing for potatoes

The potato has been relatively unaffected by recent world food price hikes (CIP)
The potato has been relatively unaffected by recent world food price hikes

When the United Nations (UN) declared 2008 the International Year of the Potato (IYP), the world food price crisis was still in its infancy. With prices for wheat, rice and maize now at record levels, the humble potato - relatively untouched by the shocks so far - continues to offer a haven of food security for some of the poorest regions of the world. With the UN now expecting food prices to remain high for up to a decade, and the world population predicted to reach nine billion people by 2050, the potato could play a key role in providing income and nutrition in these challenging times.

At the recent Potato Science for the Poor conference in Peru, tuber experts from around the world gathered to discuss ways to increase potato production to help in the fight against poverty and hunger. In the ancient Andean city of Cusco - the region where potatoes were first domesticated around 8,000 years ago - New Agriculturist spoke to the experts to hear their views on this meek, but much-loved staple.

The promise of potato

Potato is a source of subsistence for millions and millions of people around the world. It is especially important in places where farm sizes are small, because you get more energy, calories, protein and nutrients out of a hectare of potatoes per unit time than you do with grains. So when farms get really small people shift from grains to potatoes.
Charles Crissman, deputy director general for research, International Potato Center (CIP), Peru

Potato is the world's third-most important food crop (World Bank)
Potato is the world's third-most important food crop
World Bank

Potato is one of the most important cash and food crops in East Africa and it's been one of the most important crops in mitigating disasters. When there are crises, whether manmade or natural, potato grows and gives food in a short season.
Berga Lemaga, CIP, Kampala, Uganda

The potato is a nutritional powerhouse in terms of the four major micronutrients, but more importantly, it is probably the most universally-loved food; people are passionate about potatoes.
Karen Basian, vice president of strategy and global innovation, McCain Foods Ltd, Canada

Feeding the world

Potato is the third crop in Mauritius after sugarcane and tomato. The livelihoods of a wide number of farmers depend on potato production - it is an important component of the diet in Mauritius. It also enables us to produce our food requirements locally.
A. Salem Saumtally, head of plant pathology, Mauritius Sugar Industry Research Institute (MSIRI), Mauritius

Potato is the "second bread" in Romania.
Gheorghe Olteanu, senior researcher, National Institute of Research and Development for Potato and Sugar Beet (INCDCSZ), Romania

Some of the potatoes that went to Europe and the rest of the world have saved many populations from starvation and created great wealth. But in Peru, these people who gave us that treasure are still some of the poorest on the planet. That paradox is simply unacceptable.
Pamela Anderson, director general, CIP, Peru

Potato is an important food crop in Kenya - second only to maize. It is one of the crops that should be taken very seriously by the government in the effort to fight poverty and hunger, especially when addressing the first Millennium Development Goal.
Moses Nyongesa, researcher, Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), Kenya

The potato was first domesticated in the high Andes of Peru (CIP)
The potato was first domesticated in the high Andes of Peru

A challenging climate

One of the things that helped farmers in Peru maintain their seed systems in potatoes was the fact that they were able to grow them in the very high Andes, above the insect level. That gave them a very healthy status in terms of viruses and diseases and then they could bring these potatoes down and grow them. My worry is that climate change, which is warming the mountains at a very rapid rate, will deteriorate this ancient knowledge.
Mariah Scurrah, president, Grupo Yanapai, Peru

Mauritius is getting drier, which means that it will become harder to grow potatoes unless you have irrigation. Potato is a high investment crop and if climate affects the crop, it affects the livelihoods of the growers.
A. Salem Saumtally, MSIRI

In the past five years it's become more noticeable here in the Andes that the patterns of rains and drought periods are changing. Farmers 20 years ago could rely on rains to plough the fields and start planting potatoes. Now we're having long dry periods and more intense frosts during the growing season.
Juan Risi, head of the National Institute of Agricultural Research (INIA), Peru

The impact of climate change on potato is not uniform all over the world. There are some areas like Northern Europe where we expect, maybe, an increase in potato yields. There are other areas like South America or East Asia where we might expect a reduction. It's very important to have information for the local area and to improve the quality of our predictions - otherwise policymakers can't use them.
Marco Bindi, faculty of agriculture, University of Florence, Italy

The future of research

Climate change poses many challenges for potato producers around the world (World Bank)
Climate change poses many challenges for potato producers around the world
World Bank

There are varieties of potatoes which have previously been doing well in certain regions but because of changes in climate - rising temperatures and reduced rainfall - we have to increasingly come up with new varieties that do well with less water for example - this is our challenge. Now, with reduced levels of funding for research you have more than just the climate to deal with.
Moses Nyongesa, KARI

We should look at bio-fortification - how we can enrich the potato as a food, through selection or breeding methods or even through biotechnology, to increase some vitamins or proteins that are scarce in the potato.
Juan Risi, INIA

I worry about the role of emerging diseases. Potatoes, like all crops, are equally susceptible to new diseases. We have to be careful in the future about not spreading diseases around the world and protecting smallholder farmers from new diseases that they would have very little hope of combating on their own.
Ian Barker, head of virology, CIP, Lima, Peru

The need for seed

Seed is a problem in Mozambique; we don't have the private companies producing it. Most of the seed comes from neighbouring countries like Zimbabwe and South Africa and the prices are not affordable for smallscale farmers. In the past it was possible to produce seed in Mozambique during colonial times so we need to start the programme again.
Carolino Martinho, National Agricultural Research Institute (NARI), Mozambique

Access to good quality seed in Mauritius is fundamental. We have lowland tropical conditions and a warm climate - you easily get infected plant material. In fact we can only grow potato a seed in Mauritius over three generations, after which it is no longer suitable. So, we need a constant, regular supply of seed.
A. Salem Saumtally, MSIRI

If farmers in the Andes have maintained varieties for thousands of years, they must have a seed system that works, and it worries me a little bit that the CIP and the national system are introducing a very rigid system that starts with laboratory potatoes that are cleaned of viruses and require a lab and a greenhouse to start. This will take away the knowledge that farmers have had on how to maintain their seed systems.
Mariah Scurrah, Grupo Yanapai

It is very important that we have a seed programme. Potato seed is vegetative, so most of the sanitary problems are passed through the seed. If you are going to have high-quality seed you have to train farmers to produce it and multiply it, to produce cheaper seed for the other farmers.
Juan Risi, INIA

Date published: July 2008


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