DHAKA (Reuters) - Potatoes are not traditionally high on the menu for Bangladesh’s 140 million people, but a surge in rice and wheat prices has prompted the government to popularize the humble spud as a substitute food.
“Think potato, grow potato and eat potato,” was the main slogan of a three-day potato festival in Dhaka last week.
Bangladesh’s government is waging a campaign to convince millions of Bangladeshis to embrace potatoes as a staple food due to record high rice and wheat prices and an unusually good crop of potatoes that will need to be eaten quickly before they rot.
Since grain prices soared, about a third of Bangladeshis have had to skip one or two meals a day because they could not afford to buy rice which forms the bulk of their diet.
One kilo of rice has doubled in price over the past year and now costs 40 taka ($0.58), almost half the daily wage of a factory worker. Wheat costs 44 taka for a kilo, up 150 percent. By contrast, one kilo of potatoes sells at 13 taka ($0.19) in the capital, and far less in the countryside.
Potatoes are native to Latin America but were brought to South Asia from Europe sometime in the 18th century where they are mostly eaten as a vegetable ingredient in dishes such as curry.
Although an excellent carbohydrate substitute to rice, it is hard to convince Asians, who often don’t regard a meal to be complete without a bowl of rice, to switch to spuds.
“It’s not possible to change people’s food habit overnight,” said Nazrul Islam, the director of Bangladesh’s Agriculture Information Service.
“Potato cannot replace rice as the main staple, but I think they will soon realize it can be a very good substitute at a reasonably low cost,” he added.
Potatoes are regarded as a safe crop in the low-lying South Asian country as they are planted in October and harvested by the end of February when the land is dry and before annual floods ravage the country, leaving thousands of people homeless and hungry.
Potatoes are now Bangladesh’s second biggest crop after rice. Consumption has risen from an average of 7 kilo per capita in 1991 to 24 kilo in 2007, according to agriculture officials.
Potato consumption in Britain is about 114 kilo per capita and in Belarus, the world’s biggest potato consumer, it is around 338 kilo per capita, according to the International Year of the Potato website.
Bangladesh’s government, which recently ordered 500,000 troops to eat potatoes, hopes potato consumption will jump drastically in the coming years as experts say it is unlikely rice prices will return back to previous lows.
“We grow potato every year as a subsidiary crop, along with pulses and spices,” said Mariam, a village farmer near Dhaka.
“But I think (we) will have to rely on potato as a principal crop in the future. Growing wheat is difficult as it needs more fertilizer and irrigation. Potato is easier and cheaper to grow.” Experts see potatoes as a potential antidote to hunger caused by higher food prices, a global population that is growing by one billion people each decade, climbing costs for fertilizer and reduced cropland.
The potato has been called a “hidden treasure” by the United Nations which proclaimed 2008 as the International Year of the Potato.
Asian countries are seeing potatoes as their possible salvation as they scramble to feed their people at reasonable prices in the future in a region where the population is estimated to soar by some 35 percent to 4.9 billion by 2025.
Food security is vital in the region as many governments fear unrest if food staple prices keep going up.
India has said it wants to double potato production in the next five to 10 years. China, a huge rice consumer, has become the world’s top potato grower. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the potato is expanding more than any other crop right now.
Potatoes are a great source of complex carbohydrates, which release their energy slowly and they have only five percent of the fat content of wheat.
When boiled potatoes have more protein than corn and nearly twice the calcium, according to the Potato Center in Peru. They are also rich in vitamins, iron, potassium and zinc.
“Rice and potato contain almost similar quantity of calories. But potatoes ... are rich in Vitamin C and other food values. So nutritionally, potato can be a real good substitute for rice,” said S.K. Roy, a nutrition expert in Dhaka.
This year, Bangladesh produced its biggest ever potato crop of over eight million tonnes, three million tonnes more than last year.
But the country lacks warehouses to store the potatoes, which spoil easily, and officials fear much of the stock will go to waste even as people starve and suffer from malnutrition because they can’t afford rice and refuse to turn to potatoes.
“We cannot let the potatoes, which provide us a strong food backing in this period when food grains are short in supply and high in prices, rot and perish. So let us all take more potato and make it a viable substitute for other foods,” army chief General Moeen U. Ahmed told the crowd at the potato festival.
Officials say Bangladesh can preserve only 2.2 million tonnes of potato in 300 existing cold storages across the country.
“It means we will have about 3 million tonnes left ... This is huge, we have to consume it,” said Harunur Rashid, the managing director of Canteen Stores Department, a supermarket chain run by the army which organized the Dhaka potato festival in a bid to popularize potatoes among the masses.
Leading local chefs whipped up dishes with potatoes for the thousands of people who attended the festival last week. One even made ice-cream from crushed potato, sugar and ice.
“I am just amazed to see and taste so many dishes,” said university student Rafia Akther. “I never thought potatoes could make them all,” she said, with a smile.
Potatoes are used in curries but these are usually served with rice. It is difficult to convince people that they can eat a meal based on potatoes without any rice at all.
“Normally we use potato to make curry mixed with vegetables and fish. We don’t eat it every day but take it quite often,” said Salahuddin Ahmed, a farmer and small businessman.
“But eating potato as the main dish? We never thought of it before!.”
($1 = 68.5 taka)
Writing by Anis Ahmed; editing by Megan Goldin