International Year of the Potato

2008 is the International Year of the Potato and the potato is going global.

Until the early 1990s, most potatoes were grown and consumed in Europe, North America and countries of the former Soviet Union. Since then, there has been a dramatic increase in potato production and demand in Asia, Africa and Latin America, where output rose from less than 30 million tons in the early 1960s to almost 120 million tonnes by the mid-1990s.

FAO data shows that in 2005, for the first time, the developing world’s potato production – some 162 million tons – exceeded that of the developed world (156 million tons). China is now the biggest potato producer, and almost a third of all potatoes is harvested in China and India. [Potato World Facts]

Metafilter posted a few links on behalf of the humble potato: Why now? Because the potato is delicious, easy to grow, and fun for all ages.

Pachamama, blessing the purple potatoOver many many generations, Peru and its Andean neighbors are the potato’s center of diversity — with nearly 4,000 unique varieties. Diverse indigineous strains of potatoes are under attack by multinational agritech companies. However, farmers, gardeners and the USDA are trying to preserve the potato’s diversity.

Andy Griffin of California’s robust Mariquita Farm cultivates a number of rare potato. His description of the special nature of the Andes plateau truly points to how the potato evolved.

Dawn in the Andes can be icy, but by mid-morning the sun may be hot on your back. After sundown the temperatures drop again, until your hands and feet are numb. The Andean Altiplano is a landlocked depression lying between the eastern and western ranges of the Cordillera, and it slopes from around 9,000 feet above sea-level in Peru to around 13,000 feet in Bolivia. Altiplano means “high plains,” but the Altiplano is not nearly as flat as its name implies.

The atmosphere on the Altiplano is thin and the air is dry. The sky overhead is deep blue by day, and by night it is jet black and sparkles with majestic drifts of stars. When I visited Bolivia I was impressed by the snowy peaks that surrounded me, but outer space seemed infinitely deep— and very close. I went out star gazing at night and felt dizzy, as if I was more in danger of falling off the planet than of tumbling down the mountains.

The daily extremes of temperatures in the Andes have prompted a number of different plant species there to evolve tuberous habits. A tuber is a swollen, underground stem that stores up energy so that if a “killing frost” burns off all the foliage above the ground, the plant still has enough life protected under an insulating mantel of soil to sprout again. The concentrated sugars and starches found in tubers have made a number of tuberous Andean plants important food crops for people.

The sweet potato, for example, is a tuberous morning glory from Peru that’s now cultivated all over the world. There’s also a tuberous oxalis, called oca, that is a common food on the Altiplano, and of course everyone is familiar with the tuberous plant from the nightshade family known as the potato.

Corporate threat to biodiversity
‘Terminator technology’ is a genetic- modification process that could be used to stop potatoes from sprouting unless a chemical is applied. Farmers are concerned that terminator potatoes will enter the Andean production system and destroy their traditions of storing and exchanging potato tubers for future planting.

In an open letter, 34 indigenous communities in Peru are declaring that terminator potatoes are “deeply offensive”. The Indigenous Coalition Against Biopiracy in the Andes says that by commercializing such potatoes, the Syngenta corporation would threaten potato varieties that form the basis of livelihoods and culture for millions of poor people. Terminator technology refers to genetic modifications that ‘switch off’ seed fertility, and can therefore prevent farmers from using, storing and sharing seeds and storage organs such as potato tubers.

In fairness to genetic researchers and emergent companies in this field, Syngenta’s website states that: “Syngenta and its predecessor companies have a long-standing policy not to use the so-called ‘terminator’ technology to prevent seed germination.” It defines terminator technology as “a hypothetical process”….

The pinnacle potato
Hungry in Hogtown is recommending the Horse Fat French Fry.

horse fat french fries“We can all agree on the fundamentals of a great french fry: a crunchy exterior, lots of salt, and a rich taste without greasiness. The only aspect of the fry that triggers debate is the proper texture of the interior, which is really a debate over which kind of potato — baking or boiling — to use in the first place.

“Jeffrey Steingarten, in his brilliant piece on horse fat french fries, observes that North Americans tend to prefer their interiors fluffy, whereas Europeans prefer them creamy. There’s no argument that the soft flesh of the fry should act as a contrast to the crispy shell. Now, visit your local McDonald’s and order some fries. They conform perfectly to this ideal.

“The key to producing a french fry that meets this standard can be distilled to one critical factor: moisture, or, really, the lack thereof. Whatever the process, all great fry recipes, knowingly or otherwise, are really about dehydrating potatoes.

“The potato that is first harvested in the field is roughly eighty per cent water,” explains Malcolm Gladwell about the science behind McDonald’s fries. “The process of creating a French fry consists, essentially, of removing as much of that water as possible–through blanching, drying, and deep-frying–and replacing it with fat.”

aeroponic potato growingGrowing potatoes in mid-air, in a new technique called aeroponics, is showing great promise. The tubers, grow suspended in the air.<br
The frames are covered with black plastic to keep out the light and the plants are sprayed with a solution of nutrients to allow them to grow.

The International Potato Center is using aeroponics to reduce the cost of producing seed potatoes.