Potatoes are easy to take for granted, but in fact they are the most important root and tuber crop in the world.
The humble potato holds enormous promise to contribute to meeting the needs of the developing world. In fact, the adjective “humble” is a complete misnomer. Picking up a bag of potatoes in the supermarket puts you directly in touch with a treasure trove of history. The potato did not come from Idaho, Ireland or Germany. Its origin stretches back 8,000 years, past 16th century scholars, Spanish conquistadors, the Inca civilisation and pre-Colombian cultures to the shores of Lake Titicaca high up in the Andes.
Early Andean people first took the potato from the wild and started domesticating and adapting it to their needs on the freezing altiplano 4,000 metres above sea level in what is now Peru. Already adapted to the harsh environment, the tubers of the potato were a valuable source of food that freed the Andean peoples from hunger.
First recorded as being eaten by patients in hospital in Seville in Spain in 1753, the potato played a crucial role in freeing Europe’s peasantry from hunger and providing cheap and nutritious food for the workers of the Industrial Revolution.
Today, it’s grown in more than 130 countries and more than a billion people worldwide eat it. The people of Belarus are the world champion potato eaters, eating 171.2 kg each per year. China is currently the world’s biggest producer, growing over 70 million tonnes per year.
Almost 213 million tonnes of potato are grown to eat every year, making it the third most important food crop in the world after rice and wheat. More than half of the global output comes from developing countries.
Potatoes are ideally suited to places where land is limited and labour is abundant: conditions found in much of the developing world. What’s more, the potato yields more nutritious food more quickly on less land and in harsher climates than any other major crop. They produce more food per unit of water than any other major crop and they are an excellent source of complex carbohydrates which release their energy slowly and keep the blood sugar level steadier for longer.
One of the potato’s secrets is its adaptability. Farmers in the tropics can harvest them within 50 days of planting - a third of the time it takes in colder climates. In highland areas of southern China and Vietnam, the potato is emerging as an off-season crop; planted in rotation with rice and maize, it brings relatively high prices at the market.
Similarly, in the lowlands of Bangladesh and eastern India its importance as a winter cash crop is rising dramatically. And in China, the tuber is increasingly being viewed by the state as an alternative crop to feed its rice-dependent population. As farmland there continues to be threatened by urbanisation, the potato indeed could become an important food crop as it can be planted in dry areas not suitable for rice and is easy and cheap to produce.
For poor potato farmers in developing countries, improving yields is essential to their ability to achieve economic independence and food security. While average yields in North America and western Europe often reach 40 tonnes per hectare, yields in developing countries are usually below 20 tonnes per hectare - a persistent and sizable yield gap.
I represent the International Potato Center, which is based in Peru. We seek to reduce poverty and achieve food security on a sustained basis in developing countries through scientific research and related activities on potato, sweetpotato and other root and tuber crops.
We need to develop sustainable and robust systems to support developing country agriculture, as well as to improve the access of people in the developing countries to the benefits of new knowledge and technologies. The United Nations has recognised the contribution that the potato can make by declaring 2008 the International Year of the Potato, providing us with the opportunity to increase the public’s awareness of the importance of this crop. During this year, my centre will be working closely with its collaborating institutions and donors to highlight the importance of the contribution that the potato can make.
The potato has come a long way since it was blamed for causing everything from lust to leprosy, yet many misconceptions - and a lack of information - still surround the crop. We firmly believe that this healthy tuber will increasingly play a vital role in alleviating hunger and improving the livelihoods and health of different populations around the world. In this way we can contribute to achieving fair, healthy and sustainable human development.
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