Anno Solanum Tuberosum

Perhaps you didn’t know that 2008 is the “Year of the Potato”, as decreed by the United Nations. The New York Times let the cat out of the bag this weekend, so now you have no excuse for not knowing what year it is…unless, of course, you’re a resident of Pro-America, America. In which case you probably have little use for The New York Times or the UN.

Countries around the world are indeed turning to the potato. The potato doesn’t ship very well, so it is rarely traded on international markets. Consequently, it is less likely to see dramatic swings in price. As grain prices have climbed to the point of vertigo, the potato looks like a solid option for reducing dependency on foreign grain. Both China and India are adopting potato cultivation, and the spud is catching on in Africa too. Could the lowly spud have wound its way from the Andean highlands to savior of the world’s poor?

In a word, no. In many words, maybe.

Food aid programs avoid the potato because of its weight and how well it keeps…or not keeps. Potatoes rot quickly in warm temperatures; when conditions are right they will sprout; and when exposed to light they can become toxic. As a Solanaceous species – like tomatoes and eggplant – the only parts you can eat are the parts you eat. All the rest contain solanine, the alkaloid that makes nightshade deadly. Some food aid groups are looking at encouraging local potato growing rather than shipping in aid. This is a beautiful idea along the lines of teaching a man to fish.

There are, however, problems. The potato is susceptible to a host of pests and diseases, and while most of these can be alleviated in many ways, i would suspect that the world’s poor will be sold a great deal of chemical pesticides, fungicides, etc. along with their new crop to “help” them achieve food security. The other issue is that potatoes are rather heavy feeders, particularly on nitrogen. Successive plantings can strip the soil. This issue will probably be alleviated with bags of chemical fertilizer, or treating the symptom rather than the disease. Andean natives handled some of these issues by planting a wide range of varieties in a plot in a shotgun approach. If a blight struck, it would probably not affect all of the varieties. Moreover, the 3000+ varieties in the Andes are spread across at least 8 distinct species, whereas the modern varieties are all tuberosum. We all know the story of the blight in Ireland that resulted from everyone planting the same variety.

The potato certainly deserves a place in the food plots of the world, but it will not, by itself, solve world hunger. Encouraging self sufficiency instead of aid is a step in the right direction, but giving the world’s poor a crop that requires a great deal of input will only shackle them to different international markets.

Will these new potato farmers be encouraged to interplant legumes with the potatoes? Legumes are nitrogen fixers that would help counteract the feeding habits of the potato…and they’re edible. The world’s poor do not need a new crop, they need systems for cultivating the myriad of crops already available. They need the principles of intensive, sustainable agriculture. They need methods that are not dependent on chemical inputs. They are poor, not stupid. What they need are the right set of tools to address their issues.

Chances are good that they won’t get the right set of tools, because they get their advice from people who don’t use the right set of tools.

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~ by Lex on October 27, 2008.

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