Fighting poverty with potatoes and paintings

Paintings by artist Mamani Mamani celebrate the potato's amazing variety.

Paintings by artist Mamani Mamani celebrate the potato’s amazing variety.

Potatoes are the world’s most important tuber crop, a food staple for more than a billion people. Recognizing how many people in developing countries depend on this prolific crop for their very survival, the United Nations has declared 2008 the International Year of the Potato.

In the Andean region of Peru and Bolivia, where the potato was first cultivated more than 7,000 years ago, the PROINPA Foundation, a SANREM CRSP partner, is promoting academic and cultural activities showing the significance of this highly nutritious food. Within this framework, the renowned Bolivian artist Roberto Mamani Mamani has joined PROINPA in the celebration with a series of paintings titled, “Potato: An Andean treasure.” The pictures are dedicated to the cultural, historic, and economic value of the potato and pay homage to the men and women who conserve and cultivate this invaluable crop. All proceeds from sale of the paintings will be used for conservation of native potato genetic diversity.

“Preserving the amazing diversity of Andean crops, especially the potato, is critical to guarantee food security and livelihoods in Bolivia and Peru,” said Jeffrey Alwang, professor of agricultural and applied economics at Virginia Tech and principal investigator for one of SANREM’s five long-term research projects. “Sale of these paintings will help PROINPA with its mission of sustaining the region’s biodiversity.”

A depiction of the amazing diversity of the potato

A depiction of the amazing diversity of the potato

The potato is easy and inexpensive to cultivate, adapting well to marginal environments such as poor soil and a short growing season. The International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru, a partner in two SANREM long-term research projects in South America, reports that potatoes produce more food on less land faster than any other crop: One hectare of potatoes can yield the nutritional value of 2 to 4 hectares of grain and twice as much protein as wheat. A single medium-sized potato contains half the daily adult requirement of vitamin C, more protein than corn, and nearly twice the calcium. Potato is also low in fat. All of these traits make the potato a valuable source of nutrition and income for poor people in developing countries.

There are thousands of potato varieties with a fantastic range of tastes, sizes, shapes, and colors, from pure white to deep purple. The genes of many potato varieties contain natural resistance to disease and drought. Because just a few are grown commercially, however, many varieties are disappearing. There is a danger that today’s cultivated varieties, repeatedly reproduced from previous tubers, may become weak and prone to disease. Yet the potato’s genetic diversity provides the variation needed to develop new types that can resist emerging threats from disease, pests, social and environmental stresses.

PROINPA and SANREM researchers are helping small farmers by promoting technological innovation, food security, and the conservation and sustainable use of Andean genetic resources. Because Bolivia is one of the world’s most biodiverse countries, the genetics of its native plants, especially potatoes, are of great scientific interest.

A museum display of different varieties of potato.

A museum display of different varieties of potato.

Fundación PROINPA – Foundation for Research and Promotion of Andean Products – is a partner in two of SANREM’s five long-term research projects: “Watershed-Based Natural Resource Management in Small-Scale Agriculture: Sloped Areas of the Andean Region,” directed by Alwang; and “Adapting to Change in the Andean Highlands: Practices and Strategies to Address Climate and Market Risks in Vulnerable Agro-Ecosystems,” directed by Corinne Valdivia at the University of Missouri-Columbia. In Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru, research focuses on crop varieties that farmers can grow and sell profitably while protecting the environment.

Among SANREM and PROINPA’s primary goals is to teach local farmers new agricultural technology such as tilling methods, crop rotation, and proper use of pesticides and fertilizers. Both programs also are committed to including women in their research and education. Though women are active in growing and selling produce, they are not always considered in training and policymaking.

Valdivia said women’s contribution is especially important in potato cultivation because a large number of varieties are grown for home consumption only. When SANREM and PROINPA researchers held a competition recently in Aroma La Paz, 400 people participated, bringing in 114 less-common varieties that researchers are now cultivating. Local farmers are partners in the project, sharing what they know about each type: which soil and climate it prefers, what it can withstand. “On the one hand, we are identifying which varieties are still being grown,” Valdivia said. “And with PROINPA and the International Potato Center, we are identifying niche markets where the beauty of these potatoes – their diversity of colors, shapes, and textures –are valued by consumers.”