As wheat and rice prices surge, the humble potato is
being rediscovered as a nutritious crop that could cheaply
feed an increasingly hungry world.
are native to Peru, can be grown in a wide range of
conditions, at almost any elevation or climate - from
the barren, frigid slopes of the Andes 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 recent 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 Centre in Lima,
a non-profit scientific group.
Like others, she says the potato is part of the solution
to the hunger caused by higher food prices, a population that
is growing by one billion people each decade, climbing costs
for fertiliser and diesel and more cropland being sown for
To focus attention on this, the United Nations named 2008
the International Year of the Potato - calling the
vegetable a 'hidden treasure'.
Governments are also turning to the tuber. Peru's leaders,
frustrated by a doubling of wheat prices in the past year,
have started encouraging bakers to use potato flour to make
bread. Potato bread is being given to schoolchildren, prisoners
and the military, in the hope the trend will catch-on.
Supporters say that it tastes just as good, but not enough
mills are set up to make potato flour. "We have to change
people's eating habits" - Ismael Benavides, Peru's agriculture
minister, said. "People got addicted to wheat when it was
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 consumption, with each
inhabitant devouring an average of 376lb a year.
China, a huge rice consumer that historically has suffered
devastating famines, has become the world's top potato grower,
while in sub-Saharan Africa, the potato is expanding more
than any other crop. India has told food experts it wants
to double potato production in the next five to ten years.
In Latvia, sharp price rises caused bread sales to drop by
10 to 15 per cent in January and February, as consumers bought
20 per cent more potatoes.
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" - Ms Anderson said.
The potato is already the world's third most-important food
crop after wheat and rice. Potatoes come in some 5,000 types
and 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.
In colours ranging from alabaster white to bright yellow
and deep purple - and, with countless shapes, textures and
sizes - potatoes offer inventive chefs a chance to create
new, eye-catching dishes. The Lima potato centre says they
are a great source of complex carbohydrates, which release
their energy slowly and have only 5 per cent of the fat content
They also have a quarter of the calories of bread and, when
boiled, have more protein than corn and nearly twice the calcium.
They contain vitamin C, iron, potassium and zinc.
Science is moving fast. Genetically modified potatoes that
resist 'late blight' are being developed by the German
chemicals group BASF. 'Late blight' is the disease
that led to famine in Ireland during the 19th century and
still causes about 20 per cent of potato-harvest losses in
the world, the company says.
Scientists say that farmers who use clean, virus-free seeds
can boost yields by 30 per cent and be cleared for export.
That would generate more income for farmers and encourage
more production, as companies could sell speciality potatoes
abroad, instead of just having them turned into frozen chips