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The Potato

Updated on July 13, 2017

The potato was first cultivated somewhere between the borders of Peru and Bolivia approximately 8,000 years ago. It is the world’s most widely grown tuber crop and the fourth largest food crop in terms of fresh produce after rice, wheat and corn. Peru is essentially the birthplace of the potato and in the Andean region there are thousands of varieties of potatoes that grow wildly. Farmers there still cultivate up to 50 varieties that are still commercially available.

From the Andeans, potatoes were brought to Europe post the colonization of South and Central America by Spanish traders and have increased in popularity ever since. It is at present the most consumed tuber crop in Europe.

Potatoes were first introduced to Central Asia approximately 150 years ago and since then potatoes have become an important food source. In 2011 a University of Michigan study set the average consumption of potatoes in the region at 143 kg annual per capita, one of the highest in the world.

In 2004 a study done by the International Potato Center revealed that iron deficiency was rampant in many countries in Central Asia including Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The center undertook an extensive study to find an effective solution to the problem and it discovered that certain varieties of potatoes especially those grown in Uzbekistan namely the Picasso and Kuroda have the highest iron and zinc content on a dry weight basis.

The center identified Central Asia as a region that can potentially impact the overall global nutritional status especially with regards to iron deficiency anemia and recognized the role of the potato as a solution to the problem.

Chronic malnutrition especially iron deficiency is a critical problem in some parts of Central Asia affecting up to 60% of women aged between 15 to 49 years and children under the age of 3 (Uzbekistan).

The potato is a fast growing plant and grows well not only in large farms but also in small plots of land. Its yield of calories per acre (about 9.2 million) is higher than that of maize (7.5 million), rice (7.4 million), wheat (3 million) and soybean (2.8 million).The world’s largest producer of potatoes is China, followed by India, the Russian Federation, Ukraine, the United States, Germany, Poland, Bangladesh, Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, Malawi, Turkey, Canada, Iran, Peru, Egypt, Brazil, Algeria and Pakistan (FAO).

A bulk of the potatoes that are produced around the world today are cultivated as secondary crops, on a small scale, utilizing poor sandy soil with relatively low yields.

Growing potatoes is not only an option for farmers but for anyone with a bit of land to spare. Soil fertility does not have much of an impact on production because potatoes can grow, as farmers in Poland and Ukraine have shown, in relatively poor soil. Both countries produce in excess of what’s required and their production capacity is bolstered by utilizing less fertile soil. Even if the potatoes are not suitable for human consumption they can still be used as animal feed.

The demand for potatoes has doubled over the last 15 years and this is mainly due to the growing demand for frozen and dried potatoes, chips and snacks. This figure is expected to double again by 2020.

Consumption of potatoes in developing countries has also increased from 9 kg per capita in the early 1960s to over 14 kg today. Belarus has the highest consumption of potato per capita.

The potato is a nutrient-dense food. It provides good nutritional return for calories. It has a high energy yield and it is rich in vitamin C content. Typically, 100 gm of potatoes will contain about 17 mg of Vitamin C.

In addition to that, natural potatoes also contain vitamins A, B and P. The potato is also rich in potassium and it further contains calcium, iron and phosphorus. It is about 17% starch and is one of the best natural sources of starch.

The United Nations officially declared 2008 as the International Year of the Potato. It was done in order to increase awareness of the importance of the potato as a food source in developing nations. It dubbed the potato “the hidden treasure”. Promotions were carried out throughout the year to increase awareness on the contributions the honest potato can make in alleviating global hunger.

© 2016 Kathiresan Ramachanderam and Dyarne Jessica Ward

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