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More than comfort food: the humble potato's superpower

May 31, 2022
topics: Food Security
by: Kata Karáth
located in: Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia
tags: Andes, climate change, food security, potato, superfood

Cultivated and prepared correctly, potato can be a game changer in promoting food security, human health and sustainable agriculture.

The first time I heard the words 'Super Chola', I thought it must be the stage name of a Bolivian cholita female wrestler. I was hilariously wrong. Super Chola is the name of a potato variety adored by many in Ecuador. It is medium-sized, with smooth pinkish skin and pale yellow flesh and can be used for any dish from mashed potatoes to fries.  

Super Chola and other potato varieties are often treated as well-loved but easily overlooked parts of our diets. Yet, researchers are starting to realise what Andean indigenous farmers have known for centuries: potatoes might harbor qualities that could very well be instrumental in achieving a better future for the world.

Global Food (In)security

In the coming decades, feeding Earth's ever-growing human population will become a substantial challenge: a problem that is more imminent and severe than many of us comprehend. The main challenge is not only to produce a greater amount of food, relying on the same or fewer resources, but also to produce food that is nutritious and can be widely grown.

Enter potato.

Aside from other staple crops like rice and wheat, potato is highly diverse, relatively easy to cultivate and is in high demand globally, particularly in low-income countries plagued by high levels of poverty, hunger and malnutrition. "​​You can produce more potato per unit of water than any other major crop," says Israel Navarrete, agrobiodiversity and seed system specialist at the International Potato Center. "Potato is a staple food in the Andes, and it’s an important source of food in different countries like Nepal or various African nations."

According to current data, around 821 million people are undernourished worldwide, while 1.2 billion suffer from obesity. Meanwhile, natural resources are under increasing and unsustainable pressure from food production, processing and waste. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that by 2050, the world’s population will grow to 9.7 billion people who will demand 60 percent more food than is eaten today. 

Some may ascribe potatoes to junk food. In reality, however, unhealthiness has more to do with lifestyle choices and food preparation than the produce itself (including potato). In fact, potatoes contain a fair amount of nutrients, such as vitamin C (when eaten with the skin, a single medium-sized potato provides nearly half an adult’s daily C vitamin requirement), phenolic compounds (which are vital for the body’s defense responses) and even have a similar amount of protein as some cereal grains.

Potatoes also contain various types of vitamin B and important minerals such as iron, potassium and magnesium. If we look at native potato varieties, some are even richer in micronutrients and antioxidants than commercial varieties. Overall, potatoes are shown to have various health benefits from being anti-cancerigen, anti-hypertensive, anti-obesity and anti-diabetic.

Enhancing food security doesn't only come down to eating healthier foods, though, but also to having a better income to be able to afford a more diverse and healthy diet. Potato is currently cultivated on an estimated 19 million hectares of across the world, with around 378 million tons produced annually. While potatoes are grown on every continent except Antarctica, in some nations like Peru, one of its domestication hotspots, the love for potato is deep-rooted (people eat 85kg of potatoes per year).

But other nations like China and India, where potatoes only appeared a few hundred years ago, are quickly growing fond of it, too (50 kg consumed per person per year). As potato is so widely available and highly adaptive to altitudes and climates, improving its production can be very effective in helping poor farmer families to attain food security and climb out of poverty.

Underground resilience

With more than 4,000 varieties, the Andean native potato biodiversity is the largest in the world. The domestication of potatoes is thought to have taken place some 10,000 years ago in the Lake Titicaca Basin, a region that covers the border areas of modern-day Bolivia and Peru. Through several millennia of careful selection and breeding, potato varieties can now successfully be cultivated anywhere between lowland plains to over 5,000 meters of snowy mountains.

As climate change continues to warm our planet, farmers big and small face intensifying challenges, ranging from diseases and pests to droughts, floods and unpredictable weather patterns. This means that previously adapted potato varieties might not be able to tolerate these new conditions. What is therefore needed now is to conserve the wild varieties of potatoes in the Andes as they are living gene banks with huge potential for the discovery of traits that can help us grow climate and disease-resilient potatoes.

But "one of the issues is how you increase farmers’ [willingness to invest in] diversity due to markets that have established 'the rule of the food'... that food needs to look perfectly shaped, have no spots on the skin, be extremely clean, etc.," says Navarrete.

Wild potatoes have already proven themselves. Learning from the devastation and famine in mid-19th century Ireland - brought upon by the late potato blight disease - researchers managed to find eleven late blight-resistant genes in a Mexican wild potato species (Solanum demissum). They have since been used extensively by potato cultivators in Europe and North America. 

In Peru, there is a group of potato farmers known as the Papa Arariwa, or the Potato Guardians, who are working along with scientists from the International Potato Center to conserve hundreds of native varieties for future climate scenarios. They founded the so-called Potato Park, located near the town of Pisaq in Peru’s Sacred Valley, where they combine both ancestral and modern scientific methods to grow resilient potatoes over 12,000 hectares.

Currently, their gene bank houses around 1,4000 varieties. But Navarrete warns about the not-so-direct impacts of climate change: younger generations are likely to migrate to cities, lose connection to the land, and as a result fail to acquire knowledge related to agrobiodiversity. "Scientists in the Andes are working on creating collaboration with schools as a new place to support the transmission of this knowledge," he adds.

Potatoes empower women

Women in the Andes have long played a key role in safeguarding potato diversity. Over the last few decades, there has been a huge wave of urban migration among men seeking better work opportunities. Meanwhile, rural women continue to oversee potato cultivation and are the ones who decide which seeds are to be stored and planted each season.

Varieties are chosen based on a wide range of factors, such as their culinary aspects (taste, preparation and cooking time), how abundantly they yield, how much care they require and how resistant they are to disease, droughts and floods.

In Peru and Bolivia, women preserve various native potatoes, such as the bitter potato species (Solanum juzepczukii and Solanum curtilobum), which can endure temperatures as low as −3 °C. They can be traditionally freeze-dried into so-called black and white chuñoa, and were also essential for the Inca who stored them in storehouses along the Inca road network. 

This traditional knowledge has been verbally passed down over generations from mothers to daughters and is based on the Andean cosmovision. It merges spiritual, geographical and ecological knowledge accumulated for thousands of years.

Apart from ensuring food security for their families and communities, women benefit from seed-guarding in other ways, too. Women from the Peruvian towns of Junin and Huancavelica who participated in the Papa Andina project, coordinated by the International Potato Center, were able to buy land under their own name from the money they made selling native potatoes. "But we also have to understand that our populations are indigenous in the Andes," highlights Navarrete, "so besides using gender-based approaches to achieve equity, we also have to be perceptive of issues of ethnicity."

Let's face it - potatoes will not save the world; but they can certainly help us build a more sustainable future. "The more agrobiodiverse our diets, fields and knowledge are, the more resilient we will be to the effects of climate change," says Navarrate.

Image by Manon Koningstein (CIAT)

Article written by:
Kata Karath
Kata Karáth
Author
Ecuador Peru Bolivia
As climate change continues to warm our planet, farmers big and small face increasing challenges, ranging from diseases and pests to droughts, floods and unpredictable weather patterns.
© Paul Frangipane/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Women in the Andes have long played a key role in safeguarding potato diversity.
© NurPhoto via Getty Images
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