Lima — Potatoes were first taken out of Peru, where they originated, 458 years ago to feed the world. Half a millennium later, potatoes have spread throughout the planet but there are challenges to preserve the crop's biodiversity as a source of food security, as well as the rights of the peasants who sustain this legacy for humanity.
The hosting of the 10th World Potato Congress between May 27 and 31, in the ancient city of Cuzco, the centre of what was the Inca empire in the south of the Peruvian Andes, is a recognition of Peru as the main supplier of the potatoes, since it has the largest amount of germplasm in the world, and great commercial potential.
"Peru has 3,500 potato varieties of the 5,000 existing in the world. Culturally potatoes are a way of life, a feeling, a mystique. From the point of view of commercial production, hosting the congress is an opportunity to show the world new products such as flours, flakes, liqueurs and fresh potatoes," engineer Jesus Caldas, director of management of the National Institute of Agricultural Innovation (INIA), which leads the Organising Committee of the world congress, told IPS.
"The designation of Peru as host of the congress is important; the scientific community involved in the global innovation of potato production will return to the source of its origin and diversity, which is key for food security." -- Gonzalo Tejada
Held for the first time in 1993, this technical-scientific congress is held every three years, and for the first time will be hosted by a Latin American country.
Under the theme "Returning to the origin for a better future" and promoted by the World Potato Congress (WPC), the tenth edition will reflect onbiodiversity, food security and business.
"The designation of Peru as host of the congress is important; the scientific community involved in the global innovation of potato production will return to the source of its origin and diversity, which is key for food security," Gonzalo Tejada, national coordinator of Projects of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), a member of the Organising Committee of the congress, told IPS.
The potato was domesticated about 8,000 years ago in the Peruvian highlands, in the region of El Puno, shared with Bolivia. After the arrival of the Spanish to this part of the continent at the end of the 16th century, they introduced the plant to their country, and from there it spread throughout Europe, becoming a staple food product.
The non-governmental Lima-based International Potato Centre (CIP) indicates that the tuber, which has significant nutritional properties, is today the third most important crop on the planet after rice and wheat, and that more than one billion people who eat potatoes on a regular basis consume an estimated annual production of 374 million tons.
The CIP reports that the total cultivated area of potatoes exceeds 19 million hectares in 156 countries. "The biggest consumption is by industries that use potatoes for frying, in starch or in liqueurs like vodka, which involves production by large transnational companies," said FAO's Tejada.
In most countries, he explained, production is concentrated in extensive agriculture carried out by large companies. This is not the case of Peru and its Andean neighbors Bolivia and Ecuador, where ancestral practices have been kept alive, making it possible to conserve the native species that constitute the basis of the crop's biodiversity.
But these crops face the impacts of climate change, lack of technology and narrow profit margins, among other problems.
Josefina Baca, a 42-year-old farmer, plants potatoes more than 3,100 meters above sea level in Huaro, a town 43 km from the city of Cuzco. She says the heat is more intense than in the past, and is worried by how variable the rainy season is now.
"I am always coming to my farm and I work with devotion, but the climate changes are spoiling the crops: if the frost falls prematurely it ruins everything. Or sometimes there is no rain and we lose the crops. I farm organically, without chemicals, but we need support to protect our seeds, our biodiversity," she told IPS.
Moisés Quispe, executive director of the National Association of Agroecological Producers (ANPE), which represents 12,000 native potato growers, especially in the centre and south of the Andes range, told IPS that climate change is a serious threat to rural people.
Quispe, who is a farmer and guardian of seeds in his area, explained that they are at a disadvantage in the neoliberal market because due to the lack of political will there is no promotion of small-scale agricultural development that produces the native potato in all its wide variety.
"From one hectare, you can obtain 60 tons of conventional potatoes, but only 15 at the most of native potatoes, because they are grown with no tillage, just manual labour, without machines, because the wild terrain where these potatoes grow do not allow it," he explained.
He added that the production system entails crop rotation, natural soil fertilisation, clean water irrigation, permanent pest and disease control and seed selection.
"This demands more labour, it raises the costs of small-scale production by potato growers, but we do not get a fair price," he said.
Native potatoes, which draw three times the price of the most commercial and conventional varieties, are species of diverse textures, shapes and colours that are produced in high areas and adapted since time immemorial to climatic adversity. They have been conserved based on the ancestral knowledge of indigenous peasant families and without using chemical elements.
ANPE's Quispe stresses that Peru as a country of conservation of plant genetic resources which has helped to prevent hunger in different parts of the world, but regrets the lack of recognition of the rights of the small farmers who make it possible to conserve the native potatoes year after year, for generations.
He demanded a differentiated public policy that promotes in situ conservation based on the integration of local knowledge. "The law says that all seeds must be certified but we do not agree, the peasants have the potato as their father, brother, great-grandfather have inherited it, they cannot try to monopolise the seeds because they are a common good," he argued.
Currently the country leads the production of potatoes in Latin America with 4.6 million tons per year, while per capita consumption is 85 kg a year. But greater volume is required to take on the commercial challenges.
INIA's Caldas recognises the need to adopt public policies to increase potato productivity, and calls for greater resources for research, promotion of agriculture and seed certification.
In his view, the fact that of the 320,000 hectares of potatoes grown in the country, only 0.4 percent of the seeds used are certified is a disadvantage that contributes to low crop yields.
He also cited factors such as the lack of irrigation infrastructure, dependence on rainfall and limited knowledge about fertilisation. "There is ancestral knowledge but there is a lack of technical support," the official said.
Miguel Ordinola, representative of the CIP in the Organising Committee of the Congress, said the meeting will offer opportunities to present global advances in research that will benefit small farmers.
"Studies have been carried out by the CIP together with American and European universities on how we are adapting to the conditions brought on by climate change. One of the hypotheses to be proved is that native varieties are being planted at higher altitudes, that with the increase in temperatures farmers are seeking higher altitudes," where temperatures are lower, he told IPS.
During the 10th Congress, the progress made in scientific research will be seen in the field, in the Potato Park and in the visit to the Andenes Station, the only one in the world that researches Inca and pre-Inca "andenes" or platforms - step-like terraces dug into the slope of a hillside for agricultural purposes.
Ordinola said Peru and its Andean neighbours have great commercial potential to develop, to which this world congress will contribute.
"Peru got to be host because it is a centre of biodiversity for the world, which means many of the problems facing potato crops can find a solution through research in the Peruvian and regional context," he said.
The world meeting will gather some 1,000 people from the scientific, academic, business and peasant farming communities. Of the participants, 60 percent will come from Latin American countries.