The potato – changing international food aid strategies

Probably because I’m Irish by birth, I have always enjoyed eating potatoes. My father, who grew up in Belfast, used to call mashed potatoes “champ” and always welcomed seeing it on his plate. So I have been interested in the UN’s attempts to bring more attention to the potato as a way of improving food security in much of the world. The recent food price crisis looks to make the potato a star, once again, which is fitting as 2008 is the International Year of the Potato.

The New York Times reports that while 10 years ago, potatoes were mostly grown and eaten in Europe and the Americas, China and India now are first and third in global potato production and in 2005, for the first time, developing countries produced most of the world’s potatoes. Potatoes are now the second most important calorie source in Rwanda, after cassavas, and potato growing and eating is rapidly increasing in Nigeria and Egypt.

There are many good reasons for this expansion. A medium potato, boiled with the skin on, provides about 100 calories, 26 grams of carbohydrates, zero cholesterol, about 4 grams of protein, 3 grams of fibre, about half the daily adult requirement of vitamin C, as well as significant amounts of iron, potassium, zinc, thiamin, niacin and vitamin B6 and such essential trace elements as manganese, chromium, selenium and molybdenum. It takes less water and energy to grow potatoes than wheat, and potatoes mature quickly. They aren’t used to produce biofuels and, when grain prices rose dramatically, potato prices stayed stable – they aren’t traded on world financial markets because they are heavy and do not transport well, the Times notes.

Encouraging greater potato production and consumption thus means encouraging local potato production – and that helps to support a major shift in international food aid that will help developing countries in ways that food aid has not done in the past. Earlier this year, when food prices skyrocketed, the World Food Program began to focus on buying food locally for its food aid programs. This paradigm shift is helping to support the growth of local economies in the developing world, and the new potato promotion strategy seems likely to do the same thing.

The Times quotes FAO expert NeBambi Lutaladio as saying that: “Increasingly, the potato is being seen as a vital food-security crop and a substitute for costly grain imports. Potato consumption is expanding strongly in developing countries, where potato is an increasingly important source of food, employment and income.” Since 2004, the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru has been working on a 10-year research program “aimed squarely at contributing to the achievement of selected targets of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)” by improving the livelihoods of the poor.

The current food price crisis has brought attention to this mandate in a new way. CIP director Dr. Pamela Anderson told the Times that until recently, she was most commonly asked for her favourite potato recipe. “Now the food system is so fragile that people have stopped laughing. People are asking, ‘How can potatoes help solve the problem?’ And she believes the answer is twofold: planting potatoes gives food security, and it strengthens the local economy in ways that sending in food aid from outside does not do.

“The potato has come a long way since it was blamed for causing everything from lust to leprosy, yet many misconceptions—and a lack of information—still surround the crop,” Dr. Anderson says in an article entitled Let them eat potatoes. “We firmly believe that this healthy tuber will increasingly play a vital role in alleviating hunger and improving the livelihoods and health of different populations around the world. In this way we can contribute to achieving fair, healthy and sustainable human development.”

One example of how it can do that is the Peruvian potato project T’ikapapa, which won The World Challenge 2007. T’ikapapa is a marketing social concept that enables resource-poor farmers from the Andean highlands to sell their distinctly labeled native potato crop in Lima’s supermarkets.

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