Potatoes Rising

Sometimes, you forget what you know. I thank Terry Wade for reminding me that the potato revolution is long from over. The potato single handedly freed Europe from endemic famine and fed the population expansion from the seventeenth century to the present.

That China has made such a huge investment in potato production comes as a complete surprise. That India also will is another surprise.

Yet the logic is there. A mere acre of land can easily produce over a ton of potatoes. I know this from personal experience. It takes several acres to produce the equivalent in grains. This is why famine is no longer a real threat anywhere unless it is artificially caused.

The only difficulty is that at the subsistence level it takes a little more labor than almost any other crop. For the uninitiated, besides cutting seed eyes and planting them several inches deep, one has to also hill the rows at least twice, if not three times, normally by hand with a hoe. However, an acre of such work is not onerous and it is the best payoff in the household garden with enough for a family all winter.

It also solves another issue that I was mulling over. Subsistence level biochar production with corn root earthen kilns requires a sister crop to plant every second season at the least. The Amazon Indios were able to use cassava in the rainforest. This is an unlikely option elsewhere. The fact is that the potato is suitable everywhere else that you are able to grow corn.

Thus in one season the land can produce a ton of corn and in the next season a couple tons of potatoes. If one is additionally growing legumes with the corn as in the three sisters system, then the soil is getting a nitrogen boost.

Returning to my favorite tropical soils that are today a disaster, this growing protocol has one other advantage. Freshly cleared and broken soil requires a great deal of working in order to provide a quality seedbed. The extra hilling needed for potatoes does exactly this.

I once converted a section of lawn into a planting bed by first breaking and turning the sod deeply enough to give me several inches of working soil. I then planted potatoes. By season’s end I had a fine seedbed. The potatoes were scarred from a too biologically active soil but by then I knew how to work with the resultant soil. And I had my bed. I would recommend this process to any hobby gardener who wants to restore flower beds.

I am optimistic that huge tracts of tropical soils can be brought into continuous cultivation using this virtuous corn potato protocol producing viable livelihoods for a couple of billion people at least. I would expect to feed a family of several mouths on perhaps two to three acres of tropical soils that once could only give one crop in fifteen years. Just three growing seasons per year with one crop of corn and two crops of potatoes would produce about ten tons of potatoes and likely a couple of tons of corn on two to three acres of land. I suspect that this is much more productive than a rice paddy.

As other staples soar, potatoes break new ground


April 16, 2008 at 9:04 AM EDT
LIMA — As wheat and rice prices surge, the humble potato - long derided as a boring tuber prone to making you fat - is being rediscovered as a nutritious crop that could cheaply feed an increasingly hungry world.

Potatoes, which are native to Peru, can be grown at almost any elevation or climate: from the barren, frigid slopes of the Andes Mountains 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 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 Center in Lima , a non-profit scientific group researching the potato family to promote food security.

Like others, she says the potato is part of the solution.

The potato has potential as an antidote to hunger caused by higher food prices, a population that is growing by one billion people each decade, climbing costs for fertilizer and diesel, and more cropland being sown for biofuel production. 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 a program encouraging bakers to use potato flour to make bread. Potato bread is being given to school children, prisoners and the military, in the hope the trend will catch on.

Supporters say it tastes just as good as wheat bread, but not enough mills are set up to make potato flour.

"We have to change people's eating habits," said Ismael Benavides, Peru's agriculture minister. "People got addicted to wheat when it was cheap."

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 potato consumption, with each inhabitant of the Eastern European state devouring an average of 171 kilograms a year.

India has told food experts it wants to double potato production in the next five to 10 years. China, a huge rice consumer that historically has suffered devastating famines, has become the world's top potato grower. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the potato is expanding more than any other crop right now.

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. Corn, which is widely planted, is mainly used for animal feed.

One factor helping the potato remain affordable is the fact that unlike wheat, it is not a global commodity, so has not attracted speculative professional investment.

Each year, farmers around the globe produce about 600 million tonnes of wheat, and about 17 per cent of that flows into foreign trade.

Wheat production is almost double that of potato output. Analysts estimate less than 5 per cent of potatoes are traded internationally.

Raw potatoes are heavy and can rot in transit, so global trade in them has been slow to take off. They are also susceptible to infection with pathogens, hampering export to avoid spreading plant diseases.

But science is moving fast. Genetically modified potatoes that resist "late blight" are being developed by German chemicals group BASF. Scientists say farmers who use clean, virus-free seeds can boost yields by 30 per cent and be cleared for export.

Touting the tubers

257.25 million - World potato production in 1991 (tonnes)
320.71 million - World potato production in 2007 (tonnes)
110 - Number of calories in a medium-sized potato.
5 - Number of kilograms of potatoes needed to produce one litre of vodka.

Sources: Reuters, UN Food and Agriculture Organization

Top potato producers

In 2007, in millions of tonnes: China 72, Russian Fed. 35.7, India 26.3, Ukraine 19.1, U.S. 17.7, Germany 11.6, Poland 11.2, Belarus 8.5, Netherlands 7.2, France 6.3

Source: UN Food and Agriculture Organization

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