Potatoes: Antidote to Hunger?
As wheat and rice prices surge, the humble potato
-- long derided as a boring tuber prone to making you fat -- is
being rediscovered as a nutritious crop that could cheaply feed
an increasingly hungry world.
Potatoes, which are native to Peru, can be grown at almost any
elevation or climate: from the barren, frigid slopes of the Andes
Mountains to the tropical flatlands of Asia. They require very
little water, mature in as little as 50 days, and can yield between
two and four times more food per hectare than wheat or rice.
"The shocks to the food supply are very real and that means
we could potentially be moving into a reality where there is not
enough food to feed the world," said Pamela Anderson, director
of the International Potato Center in Lima (CIP), a non-profit
scientific group researching the potato family to promote food
Like others, she says the potato is part of the solution.
The potato has potential as an antidote to hunger caused by higher
food prices, a population that is growing by one billion people
each decade, climbing costs for fertilizer and diesel, and more
cropland being sown for biofuel production.
To focus attention on
this, the United Nations named 2008 the International Year of
the Potato, calling the vegetable a "hidden
Governments are also turning to the tuber. Peru's leaders, frustrated
by a doubling of wheat prices in the past year, have started a
program encouraging bakers to use potato flour to make bread. Potato
bread is being given to school children, prisoners and the military,
in the hope the trend will catch on.
Supporters say it tastes just as good as wheat bread, but not
enough mills are set up to make potato flour.
"We have to change people's eating habits," said Ismael
Benavides, Peru's agriculture minister. "People got addicted
to wheat when it was cheap."
Even though the potato emerged in Peru 8,000 years ago near Lake
Titicaca, Peruvians eat fewer potatoes than people in Europe: Belarus
leads the world in potato consumption, with each inhabitant of
the eastern European state devouring an average of 376 pounds (171
kg) a year.
India has told food experts it wants to double potato production
in the next five to 10 years. China, a huge rice consumer that
historically has suffered devastating famines, has become the world's
top potato grower. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the potato is expanding
more than any other crop right now.
Some consumers are switching to potatoes. In the Baltic country
of Latvia, sharp price rises caused bread sales to drop by 10-15
percent in January and February, as consumers bought 20 percent
more potatoes, food producers have said.
The developing world is where most new potato crops are being
planted, and as consumption rises poor farmers have a chance to
earn more money.
"The countries themselves are looking at the potato as a
good option for both food security and also income generation," Anderson
AFFORDABLE RAINBOW OF COLORS
The potato is already the world's third most-important food crop
after wheat and rice. Corn, which is widely planted, is mainly
used for animal feed.
Though most Americans associate potatoes with the bland Idaho
variety, they actually come in some 5,000 types. Peru is sending
thousands of seeds this year to the Doomsday Vault near the Arctic
Circle, contributing to a gene bank for food crops that was set
up in case of a global disaster.
With colors ranging from alabaster-white to bright yellow and
deep purple and countless shapes, textures, and sizes, potatoes
offer inventive chefs a chance to create new, eye-catching plates.
"They taste great," said
Juan Carlos Mescco, 17, a potato farmer in Peru's Andes who says
he frequently eats them sliced,
boiled, or mashed from breakfast through dinner.
Potatoes are a great source of complex carbohydrates, which release
their energy slowly, and -- so long as they are not smothered with
butter -- have only five percent of the fat content of wheat.
They also have one-fourth of the calories of bread and, when boiled,
have more protein than corn and nearly twice the calcium, according
to the Potato Center. They contain vitamin C, iron, potassium and
SPECULATORS AREN'T TEMPTED
One factor helping the potato remain affordable is the fact that
unlike wheat, it is not a global commodity, so has not attracted
speculative professional investment.
Each year, farmers around the globe produce about 600 million
metric tonnes of wheat, and about 17 percent of that flows into
Wheat production is almost double that of potato output. Analysts
estimate less than 5 percent of potatoes are traded internationally,
and prices are mainly driven by local tastes, instead of international
Raw potatoes are heavy and can rot in transit, so global trade
in them has been slow to take off. They are also susceptible to
infection with pathogens, hampering export to avoid spreading plant
The downside to that is that prices in some countries aren't attractive
enough to persuade farmers to grow them. People in Peruvian markets
say the government needs to help lift demand.
"Prices are low. It doesn't pay to work with potatoes," said
Juana Villavicencio, who spent 15 years planting potatoes and now
sells them for pennies a kilo in a market in Cusco, in Peru's southern
But science is moving
fast. Genetically modified potatoes that resist "late blight" are
being developed by German chemicals group BASF. The disease led
to famine in Ireland during the 19th
century and still causes about 20 percent of potato harvest losses
in the world, the company says.
Scientists say farmers who use clean, virus-free seeds can boost
yields by 30 percent and be cleared for export.
That would generate more income for farmers and encourage more
production as companies could sell specialty potatoes abroad, instead
of just as frozen french fries or potato chips.
April 15, 2008