Peru, cradle of the potato

Aurélie Van Wonterghem & Chris Simoens
12 June 2018
Peru is the centre of potato biodiversity. Of the 5000 varieties known world-wide, more than 3000 grow in Peru. In other words, the diversity is enormous. Unfortunately, it is being increasingly threatened, which also means the population’s food security is at stake. 

As the potato plant thrives best in a cooler climate with mainly cold nights, it can grow in a wide range of places, from southern Chile to Greenland, from sea level to 4,700 metres above sea level. The potato is the world’s third most important food crop, after rice and wheat. Recent research even suggests that the soil of the planet Mars is suitable for growing potatoes.

 

Agrobiodiversity

The potato originates from Peru, where we find over 3000 varieties. Potatoes come in many shapes, colours and flavours, and some varieties withstand drought or cold better than others. This so-called 'agrobiodiversity', i.e. the diversity of an agricultural crop, is much more than a nice piece of trivia. It is of vital importance for the survival of potato cultivation and, consequently, for the food security of many.

After all, only a very limited number of varieties are used in global potato cultivation, mostly varieties that guarantee a decent harvest and good quality. However, new diseases and plagues regularly occur, against which the cultivated varieties do not offer any resistance. In order to make them resistant, plant breeders look for old, resistant varieties within the available agrobiodiversity, which are then crossed with the disease-sensitive varieties. The result is a new disease-resistant variety which guarantees a decent harvest and good quality.

In other words, agrobiodiversity offers a reserve of characteristics or genes that can be crossed into other potato varieties according to need. It is our most important 'insurance policy' against future challenges and allows the potato sector to cope with new diseases, but also with a drier or warmer climate. The wide range of potato varieties also makes it possible to grow potatoes in various climate zones in the Andean region. As a result, the acreage to cultivate potatoes could be expanded considerably in Peru.

Agrobiodiversity is of vital importance for the survival of potato cultivation and, consequently, for the food security of many.

Potato park

It is thus essential to preserve the agrobiodiversity of potatoes. However, that will not work if the large-scale farmers switch to just a few varieties guaranteeing a decent harvest. Traditional, small-scale farmers who still use the old varieties therefore play an important role which is not always fully appreciated.

The International Potato Research Centre (CIP) in Peru, which is part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), is also committed to the preservation of agrobiodiversity. Belgium donates 2.5 million euros a year to CGIAR.

The CIP has the world’s largest in vitro gene bank for potatoes : a collection of 4,727 varieties  are kept in incubators, not on the land. The collection is updated annually. All varieties are available for research and breeding.

The CIP also works with Peruvian farmers in the Andean Mountains. For example, the research centre has set up a real potato park: a kind of reserve or 'living library' of 15,000 hectares with 1200 potato varieties. The CIP wants to extend the potato park to 4000 varieties.

In May 2018, the World Potato Congress took place in Peru. Slogan: 'Back to the beginning to plan for the future'. Here, too, a great deal of attention was paid to endangered old varieties, which must guarantee food security in the future.

Thematic file potatoes

Belgium invests in agrobiodiversity

The Belgian Development Cooperation, too, is committed to the agrobiodiversity of potatoes. For example, the Belgian Development Agency Enabel is working with the Peruvian Ministry of the Environment on the 'Prodern' project (a development programme for the sustainable management of natural resources). The project focuses on combating poverty by encouraging citizens and governments to better manage their natural heritage. Enabel, for example, worked with Victor Rojas, a Yachichiq or guardian of ancestral knowledge. Thanks to Rojas' knowledge, 124 potato varieties could be identified, each of which grows in a specific environment and at a specific altitude. Prodern helps to recognise, grow and promote indigenous potato varieties in Peru in order to guarantee the food security of future generations.

In addition to governmental programmes, the Belgian Development Cooperation is also active in the Peruvian potato sector through various NGOs, such as Trias, ADG, SOS Faim and Îles de Paix.

 

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About the same theme - Article 5 /6 The potato sector, largest employer in the Peruvian Andes