HERE is all you need to know about potatoes.
Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but you can pack a lot into a half-page column
The reason for this flashback to one of my interests was an e-mail from the editor who asked if it was possible for me to file my column a week early as he was off to cover the 10th World Potato Congress which was to be held May 27 – 31 in Cusco, “the historic city in south west Peru that was once the capital of the Inca Empire” (as it says in the promo to the Congress).
Given this, it was a good excuse to indulge in that interest and jog your memory on some facts about this crop as background to his coverage.
It’s surprising that this is the first time that the Congress, which is triennial, has been held in Latin America.
After all, Peru, where the Congress was held, is home to more than 4000 varieties of potatoes.
They have been around since the time of the Incas, which is going back a fair while (about 8000 years according to some estimates).
The Inca empire was once the largest empire in the world.
- Why don’t we eat more fruit and vegetables?
- OPINION: How Green was Tasmania
- Book questions whether Australia chose the right forms of agriculture
Everything about the potato is based on huge numbers.
There are 4000 varieties in Peru and about 5000 worldwide; 700,000 Peruvian potato farmers do the work, but most of the varieties never see a market – they’re used as gifts and kept within small communities
It’s one of the most important food crops in the world, coming after wheat, rice, corn and sugar cane and is grown in about 130 countries.
It’s much more productive than those four, yielding about 10 times as much per unit area but there’s much more labour involved in growing and harvesting.
It took until 1570 before Spanish explorers brought potatoes home, and from there they were introduced to countries all over Europe.
Ireland was one and developed a food production system largely reliant on it.
You will all have heard about what happened in the 1800s when the crop was wiped out by blight and one million people starved to death.
Those thousands of varieties have tended to stay in Peru and Latin America – they have been grown for centuries at altitudes up to 4500 metres so it’s a very resilient crop.
Elsewhere, people in different countries tend to favour a small number of varieties.
Sheeting it straight back to Tasmania, I checked in the supermarket yesterday and there were just six varieties on sale.
The number is growing.
There are plant breeding programs designed to enhance particular characteristics, such as flavour, nutritional value and disease resistance but it’s unfortunate that varietal selection in Australia is still focused on visual appeal.
The perfectly formed, clean, white tuber which we see on display in the supermarket doesn’t contain the high levels of nutrients, anti-oxidants and cancer fighting properties of the Peruvian purple varieties.
Back to the Congress.
It was anticipated that 800 delegates would attend, which works out at about six delegates from each of the 130 countries for which potatoes are an important crop, assuming they all came.
It will be very interesting to read the editor’s report.
- Dr Mike Walker is a long time Tasmania-based columnist for Good Fruit & Vegetables.