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Before she left on a field visit to India and Sri Lanka, a colleague dropped off a present at my desk: three red-skinned potatoes in a plastic sack—the remains of the stash she keeps handy for lunch. She didn’t want them to rot while she was away, and being a spud fan I was glad to get them, especially now that I’ve learned that 2008 is the International Year of the Potato—so named by the United Nations at the behest of Peru.
In a year that’s experiencing a frightening global food crisis, choosing to promote this stalwart tuber—people in the Peruvian highlands have been eating them for more than 8,000 years—seems more than serendipitous. It’s imperative. There are lots of reasons why.
Potatoes, it turns out, are efficient when it comes to sucking up water. For each unit of water used, you can get more food from a potato than from any other major crop. And compared to grains, spuds take less space: you need two to four hectares of land—about five to 10 acres—planted with grains to gain the equivalent food value that you could get from one hectare of potatoes. In developing countries where land and water resources are already under great strain, that’s got to be good news—especially as climate change is surely going to make things worse for people. Erratic weather is one of the causes of the food shortages that have sparked unrest in so many places.
In Peru, there has been a move in some quarters to find an alternative to increasingly expensive wheat. What’s getting pushed? Potatoes. Reuters reported in April that the government is touting potato flour as a good substitute for bakers to try.
“They are trying to prove potato flour has more nutritional value than regular flour,” says a Peruvian friend who has a penchant for potatoes in any form they take. And? Are they as good when processed into flour and baked into bread?
“I have tried it,” he says. “It’s a little heavier than regular bread. It’s nice. But the funny thing is it costs the same.”
Maybe in time—when there’s a complete market system in place for potato production—the price will come down. Meanwhile, the International Potato Center (based in Lima, of course) says the spud is ideal for growers in urban areas, to which, increasingly, the world’s poor are flocking. The tubers grow fast, they don’t need a lot of attention, and since they’re underground, they’re hard to steal.
I’m wondering about my red-skinned potatoes—just one of about 5,000 varieties. Dare I think that in all its diversity the potato—plump and earthy—might promise hope for our hungry planet?