Top Crop Manager

The world-saving potato

The United Nations (UN) believes that the potato...

March 4, 2008
By Top Crop Manager

The United Nations (UN) believes that the potato can help it meet some of its most important goals: fighting poverty and providing nutrition, especially in regions of the world where population growth is greatest. Recognizing that the potato is a staple food in the diet of the world’s population, the UN has declared 2008 the International Year of the Potato. The intention is to raise the awareness of the potato’s importance in meeting its goals.

A concept paper published to support the recognition of the potato says: “Potatoes are ideally suited to places where land is limited and labour is abundant – conditions that characterize much of the developing world. The potato yields more nutritious food more quickly on less land and in harsher climates than any other major crop: up to 85 percent of the plant is edible human food, while for cereals the figure is around 50 percent.


“Potatoes are rich in protein, calcium and vitamin C and have an especially good amino acid balance. A single medium sized potato contains about half the daily adult requirement of vitamin C; other staples such as rice and wheat have none. And contrary to popular belief, the potato is very low in fat: it has just five percent of the fat content of wheat and one fourth the calories of bread. Boiled, it has more protein than maize and nearly twice the calcium.

“One of the potato’s secrets is its adaptability. Farmers in the tropics can harvest potatoes 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 the potato’s importance as a winter cash crop is rising dramatically. In the Philippines and parts of Indonesia, potato production helps to satisfy the demands of exploding domestic and regional snack food industries. Potatoes are also becoming more important in sub-Saharan Africa. Although the potato is unlikely to displace mainstays such as manioc or sweet potatoes, already it is proving to be a welcome source of dietary diversity.

“For the past 10 years, potato production has increased at an annual average
rate of 4.5 percent, area planted at 2.4 percent. More remarkable still is that as potato output continues to expand, the growth rate for area planted and production continues to accelerate. As a result, the growth rate in potato production has nearly doubled in the last 20 years.

“In developing countries, where hunger and poverty are greatest, the potato is the fourth most important food crop after rice, wheat and maize. Since the early 1960s, it has outstripped all other food crops in these countries in terms of growth in production area and this trend is expected to continue. By 2020, as potato production continues to grow faster than that of the leading food crops, an unprecedented explosion in demand will double the developing world’s appetite for this crop compared to 1993.

“Farmers need to grow crops that will produce reliable, profitable and healthful harvests with a minimum of detrimental or expensive inputs. Genetic resources provide the safest and most economical source of protection from the specific pests, diseases and abiotic stresses that challenge food security. However, scientists face a major obstacle in their efforts to use genetic resources to solve production constraints due to inadequate knowledge of the ways in which different sources of desired traits, and the genes they carry, interact to control crop performance. Indeed, most traits that are critical to agriculture are controlled by complex gene networks, which are in turn affected by the environment.

“The discovery of new genes, and the development of more precise information and tools to guide their use, is thus a critical step toward continuing improvements in crop protection and productivity. Once better understood, traits controlled by single or multiple genes from close or more distant genetic resources can be incorporated into new varieties by a combination of conventional and bio-technological methods. This project seeks to bring genetic resources to bear on potato and sweet potato production needs by confirming and characterizing new sources of needed traits, and developing information, stocks, and tools to optimize their use in breeding through classical and molecular genetic approaches.

“The world’s population is growing by one billion people each decade. Nearly all of this increase will take place in the developing world, where the number of people living in absolute poverty is rising rapidly. As land and water resources dwindle, agriculture has traditionally been seen as an enemy of the environment, an agent of deforestation, soil erosion and water pollution. During the Green Revolution of the 1960s, agricultural research was concerned only with raising productivity. Today, however, the watch word is sustainable management of natural resources.” -end-