Meeting of scientists aims at honing strategies for more productive
and sustainable potato-based systems.
With cereal prices soaring worldwide, an international conference
opens in Cusco, Peru today on a crop that produces more food on
less land than maize, wheat or rice.
That crop, which some scientists are calling “the food of
the future,” is the potato. Grown in more than 100 countries,
potato is already an integral part of the global food system. It
is the world’s number one non-grain food commodity and world
production reached a record 320 million tonnes in 2007.
Potato consumption is expanding strongly in developing countries,
which now account for more than half of the global harvest and
where the potato’s ease of cultivation and high energy content
have made it a valuable cash crop for millions of farmers.
The Cusco conference -- a flagship event of the United Nations
International Year of the Potato, being celebrated in 2008 -- aims
at tapping the potato’s potential to play an even stronger
role in agriculture, the economy and food security, especially
in the world’s poorest countries.
Potato’s prospects are bright. In Peru itself, food price
inflation has spurred government efforts to reduce costly wheat
imports by encouraging people to eat bread that includes potato
flour. In China, the world’s biggest potato producer (72
million tonnes in 2007), agriculture experts have proposed that
potato become the major food crop on much of the country's arable
However, say the conference sponsors, the International Potato
Center (CIP) and FAO, extending the benefits of potato production
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 changes.
During the four-day conference, more than 90 of the world’s
leading authorities on the potato and on research-for-development
will share insights and recent research results to develop strategies
for increasing the productivity, profitability and sustainability
of potato-based systems.
They will address potato development challenges facing three distinct
economic typologies -- identified in the World Bank’s World
Development Report 2008 -- in developing countries.
The first is agriculture-based economies, mainly in sub-Saharan
Africa, where the poor are concentrated in rural areas and produce
potato for home consumption first and then sale to local markets.
CIP and FAO say a priority for these economies is research and
technology sharing to support a “sustainable productivity
revolution” and to link producers to domestic and regional
Different strategies are needed for the “transforming economies” of
Africa, Asia and the Middle East, 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
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.
On the third day of the conference, participants will visit 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.
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 this essential crop.
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