How super-spuds could save the planet

How super-spuds could save the planet


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GOOD DIGGING: Some of the biofortified potato lines grown at the International Centre for Potatoes in Lima, Peru. Some have been bred to contain higher amounts of iron and zinc.

GOOD DIGGING: Some of the biofortified potato lines grown at the International Centre for Potatoes in Lima, Peru. Some have been bred to contain higher amounts of iron and zinc.

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The world needs to embrace potatoes, including new biofortified lines, in order to combat hunger and malnutrition.

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THE potato is a powerful tool for reducing hunger and malnutrition, according to director general of the International Centre for Potatoes, Dr Barbara Wells.

What's more, some new, revved-up varieties could make those goals a closer reality.

The highly respected leader gave an insight to the challenges of solving world food shortages in her address to the 10th World Potato Congress in Peru in May.

Dr Wells has more than 30 years experience in developing commercial, technical and regulatory strategies for the launch of conventional seed and seedling products.

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Dr Wells presented a case for the potato's role to help in "feeding the future".

"The challenge of feeding the world is great but it will be even greater in 2050 when we have a world population predicted to be 9.7 billion," she said.  

According to the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), 870 million people are undernourished with about one in nine not getting enough food.

It is within this realm that potatoes could become key players on the world stage.

POTENTIAL: Director general of the International Centre for Potatoes, Dr Barbara Wells, says the potato's potential for feeding hungry nations remains largely unexplored.

POTENTIAL: Director general of the International Centre for Potatoes, Dr Barbara Wells, says the potato's potential for feeding hungry nations remains largely unexplored.

"The crop's potential for helping relieve poverty has not been explored," Dr Wells said.

"We have only begun to tap the potato's full potential for improving food security, nutrition and incomes."

Super potato lines

INTERNATIONAL work, particularly at the International Potato Centre (CIP) has been done on biofortified potatoes; spuds containing a higher concentration of iron and zinc.

In Peru, biofortified potatoes can help reduce malnutrition in areas of the Andes, complementing strategies such as the supplementation and fortification of other foods which, because they are less sustainable, tend not to have yielded such successful results.

CIP’s Quality and Nutrition Lab head, Gabriela Burgos, says the first step in the process is to analyse a group of specimens from the CIP genebank to choose which ones have the highest concentrations of iron and zinc.

"Then, we cross those varieties with other specimens to get a new generation of biofortified potatoes to combat malnutrition," Ms Burgos said.

"The scientists on the Genetics and Crop Improvement Program have been working for more than 15 years developing potato clones with a higher mineral content.”

Initial materials produced by the program have already been evaluated in collaboration with strategic partners.

There is currently a group of advanced clones with around 50 per cent higher content of the two micronutrients (iron and zinc), both of which are fundamental to reducing the anemia and malnutrition affecting some of Peru’s poorest communities based around the country’s potato production systems.

Not just more

SIMILAR to the theme within other speakers' talks, Dr Wells said it wasn't about just producing more.

Food waste remains a major concern.

"We also must deal with the fact that some food production and processing practices are putting unsustainable pressure on the environmental resources and will only make it harder to produce enough food in the future," Dr Wells said.

"According to the FAO, about a third of the food produced for human consumption is either lost of wasted."

She also addressed the concept of hidden hunger, saying more than 2 billion people worldwide suffer from micronutrient deficiencies.

"Hidden hunger affects millions more and can have consequences that can affect a person for life," she said.  

While it may seem a purely humanitarian pursuit, there are a bigger picture benefits to alleviating food disparity.

"Easing the world's hunger is not just a moral problem but also an economic problem," Dr Wells said.

  • Ashley Walmsley travelled to Peru with assistance from the Crawford Fund and with financial support from DFAT Council on Australia Latin America Relations.​ 
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