Coming soon 'The Year of the Potato'

Posted: 24 October 2007

Author: Henrylito D. Tacio

To keep up with the growth and appetite of the human population, more food will have to be produced around the world over the next 50 years than has been during the past 10,000 years combined, said the participants of a recent UN-backed forum in Iceland on sustainable development. Some are banking on 'a second green revolution'. Others put at least some of their hopes in the humble potato. Indeed, so enthuisiastic is the United Nations about its potential, that next year (2008) has been declared 'The Year of the Potato'.

"In most places, potato is eaten by poor people," said Jacques Diouf, director-general of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), announcing the new Day. "Through increased productivity, he said, "the developing countries have doubled their production in 15 years."

Currently, potato is the fourth largest source of food in the world - after rice, wheat, and corn. Every year, 350 million tons of potatoes are produced, 52 per cent of these in developing countries.

"The potato trade represented US$6 billion in 2005," the FAO head reported. "This trade has doubled in volume and has risen fourfold since the mid-1980s. So it's a growing product in terms of its impact."

While potato production declined in developed countries by around one per cent over the last 20 years, Diouf said that it increased by about five per cent in developing countries over the same period.

Distant roots

The name "potato" is believed to be derived from the Inca name papa. The association with Ireland is thought to be responsible for the name "Irish potato," which is retained even though potatoes are grown almost all over the world. "The potato is continuing its march," says a spokesman for the International Potato Center. "There's just something about potatoes that everyone likes. It goes with anything."

The history of the potato has its roots in the windswept Andes Mountains of South America. It is an austere region plagued by fluctuating temperatures and poor soil conditions. Yet the tough and durable potato evolved in its thin air (elevations up to 15,000 feet), climbing ever higher like the people who first settled the region.

The tough pre-Columbian farmers first discovered and cultivated the potato some 7,000 years ago. They were impressed by its ruggedness, storage quality and its nutritional value. The modern world did not come in contact with the potato until as late as 1537 when the Spaniards tramped through Peru. And it was even later, about 1570, that the first potato made its way across the Atlantic to make a start on the continent of Europe.

At first, potato was thought to be poisonous. Antoinette Auguste Parmentier, a French pharmacist, thought otherwise. He persuaded King Louis XVI to let him plant a field of the tubers and to station royal guards around it by day but leave it unguarded at night. As the canny pharmacist expected, peasants slipped in and raided the plot under cover of darkness. Soon, potatoes were being eaten all over the realm.

When Scotch-Irish immigrants started to settle in Maine in 1791, they brought potatoes along into what was to become one of the United States. It was, however, American president Thomas Jefferson who returned from Paris to introduce 'pomme frites' to his people. Now as American as apple pie, they are promoted as "American fries" at MacDonald's and similar eateries in other parts of the world.

Edible energy

"A potato crop produces more edible energy and protein per hectare and per unit of time than practically any other crop," says the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCARRD).

"Potatoes are exceptionally nutritious: they are rich in potassium, iron, magnesium, vitamins B and C, and complex carbohydrates, have a better quality protein than soybean and are 99.9 per cent fat-free," said an article in The Economist. "The idea that they are fattening is a myth."

Currently, there are about five thousand potato varieties grown in 130 countries around the world. In Asia, the top growers are China and India.

Henrylito Tacio is People & the Planet contributing editor in East Asia.