2008, The Year of the Potato Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC

The potato (solanum buberosum) is ranked as the third most important food crop in the world, after rice and wheat. It is now an international crop as it is grown in more than 125 countries.  Until the 1960s the bulk of potato production took place in Northern countries.  This has changed in the past 40 years. Now, almost half the annual production globally of about  300 million tonnes in grown in the South.

It is a very versatile crop.  It can be grown in environments from sea-level level right up to a height of 47000 metres above sea-level.  The potato is a very productive food source.   A single hectare of potatoes can yield two to four times the food value of grain crops.  Another plus for the potato, given the global problems with access to water, is that it can produce more food per unit of water than ant other major crop.

From a health perspective the potatoes are an ideal food source.  They are an excellent source of complex carbohydrates. They release their energy slowly and therefore keep the blood sugar level steadier for a longer period.  They are low in fat with just 5% of the fat content of wheat and one-fourth the calories of bread.  When boiled, potatoes have more protein than maize and nearly twice as much calcium.  A single medium size potato contains  half the daily requirements for vitamin C, substantial amounts of vitamin B and significant amounts of iron, potassium and zinc.   If one eats one’s potato with their skins, they also provide much needed fibre.  In 2008 it is estimated that about one billion people eat potatoes.  China is the world’s largest producer of potatoes, reaching 70 million tonnes per year.

Because of the historic and current importance of the potato as a source of food for a growing world population, the United Nations, at the behest of the Peruvian government, designated 2008 as the International Year of the Potato (IYP) to increase public awareness about the potato.  The potato originated in highlands of the Andeas.  Scholars believe that it was first domesticated near Lake Titicaca in South East Peru about 7,000 years ago.  It was first introduced to Europe by the Spanish in the mid-sixteen century, but it took over a century-and-a-half for it to become a regular and staple crop for human consumption.  Once it did, it boosted population growth in many countries, especially Ireland.

The Irish population had exploded in the later part of the 18th and the first half of the 19th. By 1845 it had reached about 8.5 million by 1845. The peasants were almost totally dependent on the potato as a source of food because this crop produced more food per acre than wheat and could also be sold as a source of income. Because of the widespread practice of conacre, the peasants needed to produce the biggest crop possible and so the type of potato most favoured was the “Aran Banner,” a large variety. Unfortunately, this particular strain was highly susceptive to the fungus, Phytophthora infestans, commonly known as blight, which had spread from North America to Europe. The blight destroyed the potato crop of 1845 and by the early autumn of that year it was clear that famine was imminent in Ireland. According to the 1841 census the Irish population had reached 8.2 million. By 1851 this figure had been reduced to 6.5 million. It has been estimated that at least one million people died from starvation and its attendant diseases, with the balance seeking emigration to Britain and North America.  The horror of the Famine has been etched on the consciousness of Irish people ever since.

The Centro Interenacional de la Papa (CIP) (International Potato Center), the world centre for the study of potatoes is located in Lima.  It was established in 1971, is staffed by scientists from all over the world,  and now has a collection of almost 5,000 varieties.  While the potato is an ideal source of food and can be grown in many different environments, there are a lot of organisms which can attack the plant.  It is estimated that the humble potato, known in Ireland as the ‘spud’ has more than 120 natural enemies.   This number is expected to increase because of the impact of climate change in many potato growing countries.

The current head of the germplasm bank at CIP is the biologist, Ana Panta. She told Hildegard Willer of Latinamerica press, that the genetic resources of the Center are available to anyone who needs them. “Campesinos come here with the’sick’ potatoes, we clean them and they can take with them a clean seed. [1]”   In the light of the predatory behaviour of many biotech corporations from Northern countries who have patented genetic resources in Southern countries, there is a growing concern about keeping the genetic resources of  CIP available to the public.  Isabel Lapena is a lawyer who specialises in biodiversity issues at the Peruvian Society of Environmental Law. She explains that “as a biological resource, the campesinos, who grown the potatoes are their owners. As genetic material, the owner is the Peruvian government”.   The Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) which was signed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero  in 1992 established that national governments have sovereign rights over their own biological resources.  However, according to Isabel Lapena, because CIP was set up before the CBD, the genetic resources at the Center is considered to be the  common heritage of humankind.

The development of a genetically engineered potato at the Center in 2007 created  much controversy on a number of fronts.   The patent laws on living organisms were developed first in the US in the wake of the Diamond versus Chakrabary. The US Supreme Court in 1980 allowed the patenting of living organisms. This has led to the patenting of many transgentic crops by  Biotech companies, thereby giving them control of the seeds of important staple foods. These patent laws  have been  put into effect globally through the  Trade Relate Intellectual Properties Section of the WTO (TRIPs 27.3b). I have written about this extensively in my book, Patenting Life? Stop! Is Corporate Greed Forcing us to eat Genetically Engineered Food. [2]

Apart from the patenting issue, others are concerned about the impact of genetically engineered potatoes on native stock.  The Action Network on Agricultural Alternatives (RAAA) in Lima have warned that transgenetic varieties could contaminate native species and thereby endanger biodiversity.  Part of the  problem according to Ymelda Montoso of RAAA is that CIP has a double role. On the one hand it is to conserve the species, and on the other, to develop transgenic potatoes. “is this really the role of an international organisation?”, she asks. [3] As a result of criticism CIP has assured the public that transgenic potatoes will not be planted in Andean countries.

[1] Hildegard Willer, “Andean potatoes for the world”, latinamericapress, January 23, 2008, page 7

[2] Sean McDonagh, Patenting Life? Stop! 2004, Columba Publications, Dublin

[3] Ibid page 8.


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