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April 19, 2015
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Current Concerns  >  2009  >  No 1, 2009  >  2008 – The International Year of the Potato [printversion]

2008 – The International Year of the Potato

Ef./ksh. Because of the importance of the potato in the fight against poverty and hunger, the United Nations has named 2008 the International Year of the Potato (IYP). The Government of Peru was responsible for the nomination. Peru is the country where 8,000 years ago the first potatoes were grown in the Titicaca Lake region at an altitude of 3,800 m above sea level. In Peru, more than 2,700 different traditional kinds of potatoes are grown. The UN resolution notes that the potato is a staple food in the diet of the world’s population. Hundreds of millions of people are currently facing a severe crisis, as the prices for basic foodstuffs have massively increased. The price for rice has nearly doubled in the course of the last year, and the price for corn rapidly rose, too. Only the potato price has remained stable.
Potatoes are grown in more than 125 countries of the world. The survival of hundreds of millions of people in the developing countries depends on the potato today. China with its 70 million tons per year is the biggest potato producer worldwide.
The potato is the most important root and tuber crop in the world. It is a major carbohydrate in the diet of hundreds of millions of people in the developing countries. The potato is the fourth most important food crop in the world, after rice, corn and wheat. The potato not only grows in the harsh climate of the Andes, in the Highlands that lie at an altitude of 4,000 meters, but also in the subtropical lowlands of India. Potatoes are rich in protein, calcium and vitamin C: A single medium-sized potato contains about half the daily adult requirement of vitamin C. Boiled, it has more protein than maize, and nearly twice the calcium. Potatoes can be harvested in the tropics within 50 days of planting. Potatoes contribute to health by providing calories and nutrients.
For many years, Switzerland has supported potato planting and merchandising projects in various developing countries and so contributes decisively to alleviate hunger and poverty.

Potatoes worldwide – a hidden treasure

The worldwide potato market is currently subject to great changes. Unit the early 1990s, most of the potatoes were grown and consumed in Europe, Northern America and the former Soviet Union. Since then, potato production and the demand for potatoes in Asia, Africa and Latin America has dramatically increased. The production rose from less than 30 million tons in the early 1960s to more than 165 million tons in 2007. According to the FAO, potato production in the developing countries exceeded the potato production in the industrial states for the first time in 2005. China is the largest potato producer today and nearly one third of all potatoes are harvested in China and India.

Top potato producers, 2007
(in million tons)

China                 79 410 500
Russian Fed.     40 547 600
India                   28 968 700
United States     22 457 700
Ukraine              21 056 400
Poland               12 997 400
Germany            12 835 000
Belarus                9 638 600
Netherlands         7 936 600
France                 6 912 700


Swissaid: A Tuber Grown Against Hunger

Worldwide we are facing severe problems with regard to food, and solutions present huge political and economical challenges. A promising approach to solve these problems is a report called International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), which, amongst other things, is based on the assumption that small-scale farming structures are the “best guarantor of local food security and national and regional food sovereignty”. For some time, this assumption has been the starting point of many aid organisations which support small-scale farming. One example is the Swiss Foundation for Development Assistance (Swissaid), which has been contributed to development assistance in nine countries since 1948 in a beneficient way. The following is taken from a report of a Swissaid representative from Virgen de las Nieves at the foot of the Andes (Ecuador) related to the UN Year of the potato.
“Ecuador’s farmers at the foot of the Andes overcome old dependencies by growing traditional potato varieties and take charge of their food supply. […]  On a small piece of land we are shown the planting of potatoes, on an adjoining piece the harvesting. All phases in between are also documented ranging from the careful manual breaking up of the soil to natural fertilizing and removing of the blooms. And as an impressive addition for our camera a ‘Troje’ is woven, a container made of handmade rope, straw and grass in which potatoes can be stored for months, protected from weather, climate and aridity.”
What does this have to do with Swissaid? Do these campesinos not just continue what their ancestors have been doing at the foot of the Andes for centuries? The answer is yes and no. For centuries these small farmers have been pushed to use overbred new varieties. In order to realise the greater yields they had been promised, they had to apply chemical fertilizers, weed killers and insecticides. The new varieties were more prone to climatic extremes, no rarity at all on an altitude of over 3000 meters. Moreover was it more difficult to store those over bred potatoes. Finally, the farmers started to sink into poverty as the technology was expensive.

People are gaining hope

In this situation Swissaid appeared. In collaboration with the communities they analysed the situation and drew the following conclusion: The best step ahead is a step back. The farmers thought of their old potato sorts, because some are frost-resistant and can be planted up to an altitude of 4000 metres high. They apply organic fertilizer, make use of vegetable waste and the manure of their domestic animals. They plant a variety of potatoes. These days Washington Cuji, who is in charge of the village’s agriculture, can demonstrate twenty different potato varieties, which are all grown in his community, of best organic quality. Through diversification the risk of failed crops is significantly diminished. They can spend their money again on urgent needs and do not need all of it for securing their food supply. Slowly but gradually people from Virgen de las Nieves can turn round and open up new perspectives.    •

Source: Swissaid Siegel No 1, January 2008

“According to the data which Ziegler and the FAO provided, there is enough food produced for everybody in the world. It is not a question of lack of production or availability. The world is also able to produce more food – food for us all. The problem is different,  it concerns the distribution, the control, the prices and the control by the transnational firms which speculate with the prices.”
Juan Antonio Fernández Palacios, UN Ambassador of the Republic of Cuba,
Current Concerns, No 15/16, 2008

Results of the Partnership Bhutan – Switzerland

In the past 40 years the partnership between Bhutan and Switzerland played an important role in the impressive development process of the kingdom. Common features like size, midland position and mountainous regions raised hope in Bhutan that the country might profit from experiences and technologies in Switzerland. Particularly substantial and visible was Switzerland’s contribution to the developing process in the 70s and 80s, when there was no other donor around apart from India.
The support of the Bhutan potato sector by Switzerland began with the introduction of new breeds as well as appropriate methods for the potato cultivation and seeds production. This had an enormous impact on the life of the peasant families. The cultivation area grew by 10 to 20% per year and reached 3,800 ha in 2007, compared to 760 ha in 1970. If we assume an added value of 5,000 Swiss francs per ha the potato production contributes 19 million francs or 2% to the gross domestic product. The successful implementation of this approach was mainly owed to the peasant families but also to the introduction of important potato cultivars and the support of seed production and marketing. “Desiree”, the most important potato breed was introduced in the context of this partnership Switzerland – Bhutan and taken to market where it was known as “Swiss Red”.

The impact of the potato on poverty and nutrition

Potatoes are cultivated mainly by small scale farmers in Bhutan, who own less than 2 ha of land. This way they improve the income of the poorer population. Potatoes are an important income source for many households. Due to more potato consumption and rising income other basic foodstuffs can be bought. Therefore the partnership Bhutan-Switzerland has contributed essentially to an improved nutrition of the population. In view of social and cultural obstacles those changes in potato consumption are remarkable.  It is interesting to note that the additional consumption of potatoes is due solely to the extension of supply and urbanization – in contrast to the prevailing trends in all other Asian countries – since there is no fast-food sector in Bhutan.

Source: DEZA: Asia-Letter, February 2008.

North Korea: Responding to the Food Crises

In North Korea, potatoes are an integral part of the population’s food security. This closed-off country suffered from starvation in the 1990s and has since made famine-prevention one of its priorities. In just ten years, the farmed area expanded from 50,000 to 200,000 hectares, and potato consumption rose from 16 to 60 kg per capita. The SDC and North Korea worked together to improve potato seed quality and farming methods such as fighting pests and making appropriate use of fertilizers. New storage methods have been introduced, and local personnel have been trained in potato seed production.

A Better Nutrition for One Million People in Nepal

Between 1986 and 2004, potato yields in Nepal increased from 6 to 12 tonnes per hectare, which underpinned the six-fold growth in output since 1970. Today potatoes are the second most important staple food in Nepal after rice. Consumption has nearly doubled since 1990, reaching 51 kilos per capita per year. For more than one million people, mostly small-scale farmers, this means a better diet and higher income.
The key to this success lies in the collaboration of the Nepalese government with the International Potato Center, which has its headquarters in Lima, Peru. The CIP, backed by the SDC, helped set up a national potato programme, organise the selection of potato varieties, implement seed potato production and improve guidelines for potato farming.

Source: .