LIMA (Reuters) - As wheat and rice prices surge, the humble potato -- long derided as a boring tuber prone to making you fat -- is being rediscovered as a nutritious crop that could cheaply feed an increasingly hungry world.
Potatoes, which are native to Peru, can be grown at almost any elevation or climate: from the barren, frigid slopes of the Andes Mountains to the tropical flatlands of Asia. They require very little water, mature in as little as 50 days, and can yield between two and four times more food per hectare than wheat or rice.
“The shocks to the food supply are very real and that means we could potentially be moving into a reality where there is not enough food to feed the world,” said Pamela Anderson, director of the International Potato Center in Lima (CIP), a non-profit scientific group researching the potato family to promote food security.
Like others, she says the potato is part of the solution.
The potato has potential as an antidote to hunger caused by higher food prices, a population that is growing by one billion people each decade, climbing costs for fertilizer and diesel, and more cropland being sown for biofuel production.
To focus attention on this, the United Nations named 2008 the International Year of the Potato, calling the vegetable a “hidden treasure.”
Governments are also turning to the tuber. Peru’s leaders, frustrated by a doubling of wheat prices in the past year, have started a program encouraging bakers to use potato flour to make bread. Potato bread is being given to school children, prisoners and the military, in the hope the trend will catch on.
Supporters say it tastes just as good as wheat bread, but not enough mills are set up to make potato flour.
“We have to change people’s eating habits,” said Ismael Benavides, Peru’s agriculture minister. “People got addicted to wheat when it was cheap.”
Even though the potato emerged in Peru 8,000 years ago near Lake Titicaca, Peruvians eat fewer potatoes than people in Europe: Belarus leads the world in potato consumption, with each inhabitant of the eastern European state devouring an average of 376 pounds (171 kg) a year.
India has told food experts it wants to double potato production in the next five to 10 years. China, a huge rice consumer that historically has suffered devastating famines, has become the world’s top potato grower. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the potato is expanding more than any other crop right now.
Some consumers are switching to potatoes. In the Baltic country of Latvia, sharp price rises caused bread sales to drop by 10-15 percent in January and February, as consumers bought 20 percent more potatoes, food producers have said.
The developing world is where most new potato crops are being planted, and as consumption rises poor farmers have a chance to earn more money.
“The countries themselves are looking at the potato as a good option for both food security and also income generation,” Anderson said.
The potato is already the world’s third most-important food crop after wheat and rice. Corn, which is widely planted, is mainly used for animal feed.
Though most Americans associate potatoes with the bland Idaho variety, they actually come in some 5,000 types. Peru is sending thousands of seeds this year to the Doomsday Vault near the Arctic Circle, contributing to a gene bank for food crops that was set up in case of a global disaster.
With colors ranging from alabaster-white to bright yellow and deep purple and countless shapes, textures, and sizes, potatoes offer inventive chefs a chance to create new, eye-catching plates.
“They taste great,” said Juan Carlos Mescco, 17, a potato farmer in Peru’s Andes who says he frequently eats them sliced, boiled, or mashed from breakfast through dinner.
Potatoes are a great source of complex carbohydrates, which release their energy slowly, and -- so long as they are not smothered with butter -- have only five percent of the fat content of wheat.
They also have one-fourth of the calories of bread and, when boiled, have more protein than corn and nearly twice the calcium, according to the Potato Center. They contain vitamin C, iron, potassium and zinc.
SPECULATORS AREN‘T TEMPTED
One factor helping the potato remain affordable is the fact that unlike wheat, it is not a global commodity, so has not attracted speculative professional investment.
Each year, farmers around the globe produce about 600 million metric tonnes of wheat, and about 17 percent of that flows into foreign trade.
Wheat production is almost double that of potato output. Analysts estimate less than 5 percent of potatoes are traded internationally, and prices are mainly driven by local tastes, instead of international demand.
Raw potatoes are heavy and can rot in transit, so global trade in them has been slow to take off. They are also susceptible to infection with pathogens, hampering export to avoid spreading plant diseases.
The downside to that is that prices in some countries aren’t attractive enough to persuade farmers to grow them. People in Peruvian markets say the government needs to help lift demand.
“Prices are low. It doesn’t pay to work with potatoes,” said Juana Villavicencio, who spent 15 years planting potatoes and now sells them for pennies a kilo in a market in Cusco, in Peru’s southern Andes.
But science is moving fast. Genetically modified potatoes that resist “late blight” are being developed by German chemicals group BASF. The disease led to famine in Ireland during the 19th century and still causes about 20 percent of potato harvest losses in the world, the company says.
Scientists say farmers who use clean, virus-free seeds can boost yields by 30 percent and be cleared for export.
That would generate more income for farmers and encourage more production as companies could sell specialty potatoes abroad, instead of just as frozen french fries or potato chips.
For more on global food prices, click here