| 10 jun 2022
How the humble potato is already helping end world hunger
Delegates at this World Potato Congress in Dublin should commit to expanding support to under-serviced countries.
Consumed by more than a billion people worldwide, including many of the world’s poorest, potato has long been one of the most important crops to avert hunger.
With vulnerable smallholder farmers undertaking around a third of global production, potato provides a crucial stopgap thanks to a growing period of as little as three months.
Yet, in some of the world’s remaining potato frontiers, a range of obstacles are preventing this staple food from delivering its full range of benefits to sustainably tackle hunger, poverty, and malnutrition.
In Sudan, for example, 9.8 million people – or one-fifth of the population – faced high levels of acute food insecurity in 2021 and required urgent assistance.
The hunger crisis has since been compounded by the war in Ukraine, which supplies the majority of Sudan’s wheat imports along with Russia.
However, high importation costs for seed and underdeveloped seed systems place potato perversely out of reach for both farmers and consumers in food insecure countries like Sudan, Yemen, Madagascar, Eritrea, and Angola.
That’s why those gathering at this year’s World Potato Congress in Dublin should be committed to expanding support to under-serviced countries where a developed, functioning potato sector could reduce chronic hunger and generate reliable incomes.
Removing the barriers
For starters, development partners and donors should prioritise strategies that increase access to affordable, high-quality seed in food-insecure countries.
Existing high importation costs are being passed off to consumers and limited support to seed system development in countries where imports are not an option are making this vital food unreachable for those who need it the most.
Improving potato seed systems so open-access varieties are bred and delivered with smallholders in mind would allow countries to become more autonomous and self-reliant in seed and potato production, reducing costs while also fostering the development of a sustainable and profitable potato sector.
The benefits of high-quality seed of suitable varieties, delivered through a system catering to specific farmer requirements, would not be limited to farmers in underdeveloped regions, but high demand would also provide new opportunities for market development.
Secondly, in supporting the adoption of potato as a key crop to promote better food security, development organisations also need to provide best-practice training and expertise in regions where this is underdeveloped. For instance, investing in good agricultural practices to foster high productivity, land stewardship and resilience will never go out of style.
High yields under sustainable land management practices is crucial to support growing potato markets, particularly in countries like Madagascar and Yemen where farmers often do not have access to the needed training and proper agronomic practices to make potato systems thrive.
The role of ag-science
Finally, agricultural scientists also need support to improve and promote climate-resilient varieties of potato, as well as offering opportunities for farmers in regions vulnerable to climate change to diversify their production.
For instance, the Unica variety of potato developed by scientists at the International Potato Center (CIP) is not only more resistant to potato viruses that can significantly reduce yields but is also resilient to extreme water stress.
For example, farmers in Kenya yielded as high as 19 tonnes per hectare with Unica under season-long rainfall of 118 mm, where normally at least 450-550 mm of rain is needed to achieve such yields.
Moreover, developing potato markets in these regions also means developing systems that deliver more food for people. For example, cultivating potato on land between rice harvests enables farmers to diversify and increase the productivity of the land.
Many of the world’s remaining potato frontiers, such as Sudan, Yemen, Madagascar, Eritrea and Angola, are also those that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and both the existing and likely political instability this brings.
Unlocking the potential of the world’s remaining potato frontiers is a win-win for farmers and consumers, both in the developed and developing regions of the world, to continue improving the world of potato for the good of all.
By meeting the unfulfilled demand and need for potato with affordable and quality seed, particularly by partnering with countries where the need is greatest, we can take the first step to planting the healthy and resilient food systems of the future.