Potato Science for the Poor: UN conference held in Cusco

More than 90 of the world’s leading authorities on the potato met in Cusco this week to discuss sustainable potato-based systems, in a four-day conference sponsored by the International Potato Center, CIP, and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO.

One of the expected outputs of the conference has been dubbed the “Cusco Challenge,” a year-long dialogue within the global potato science community that will address issues and opportunities in the future development of the crop.

With cereal prices soaring worldwide, the conference has aimed to tap the future food potential of the potato, which already produces more food on less land than maize, wheat or rice and, according to FAO, is considered by some scientists to be the “food of the future.”

The conference, a flagship event of the United Nations International Year of the Potato, was opened by Peru’s minister of agriculture, Ismael Benavides, and by CIP’s director general, Pamela Anderson, and FAO’s director for Latin America, José Graziano Dasilva.

Participants also visited a 12,000 hectare “Potato Park” near Cusco, where farmer-researchers have restored to production over 600 traditional Andean potato varieties, providing plant breeders with the genetic building blocks of future varieties.

Peru has the greatest biodiversity in potatoes, with 91 species and 2,800 varieties of the 3,900 that exist in the world. Currently, 260,000 hectares of arable land are planted with potatoes, mostly in Cajamarca, Cusco, Huánuco, Junín, La Libertad and Puno.

In Peru, food price inflation has led the government to encourage people to eat bread that includes potato flour, thereby reducing costly wheat imports. In China, the world’s biggest potato producer (72 million tons in 2007), agriculture experts have proposed that potato become the major food crop on much of the country’s arable land.

Grown in more than 100 countries, potato is already a key part of the global food system. It is the world’s No. 1 non-grain food commodity and world production reached a record 320 million tonnes in 2007. In the developing world, it now accounts for more than half of the global harvest and the potato’s ease of cultivation and high energy content have made it a valuable cash crop for millions of farmers.

However, extending the benefits of potato production, according to the conference sponsors, depends on improvements in the quality of planting material, farming systems that make more sustainable use of natural resources, and potato varieties that have reduced water needs, greater resistance to pests and diseases, and resilience in the face of climate change.

Different strategies are needed for the “transforming economies” of Africa, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, where potato systems are characterized by very small, intensively managed commercial farms. A challenge for those countries is to sustainably manage intensive systems, increasing productivity while minimizing health and environmental risks.

In the urbanized economies typical of Latin America, Central Asia and Eastern Europe, the challenge is to ensure the social and environmental sustainability of potato-based systems and to link small potato producers to the new food markets.

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