25 March 2008With cereal prices soaring worldwide, an international conference opening today aims to tap the future food potential of the potato – which already produces more food on less land than maize, wheat or rice – as part of the United Nations International Year of the nutritious root. The conference, held in Cusco in the potato’s native land of Peru, is bringing together scientists and policy makers to help devise strategies to strengthen the role of what they are calling “the food of the future” in agriculture, the economy and food security, especially in the world’s poorest countries, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Grown in more than 100 countries, the potato is already an integral part of the global food system, said FAO, which sponsored the conference along with the International Potato Centre (CIP). With a record 320 million tons produced in 2007, it is the world’s number one non-grain food commodity. Consumption is expanding strongly in developing countries, which now account for more than half of the global harvest and where the potato’s ease of cultivation and high energy content have made it a valuable cash crop for millions of farmers, according to the agency. In Peru itself, food price inflation has spurred government efforts to reduce costly wheat imports by encouraging people to eat bread that includes potato flour. In China, the world’s biggest potato producer (72 million tons in 2007), agriculture experts have proposed that potato become the major food crop on much of the country’s arable land. FAO said, however, that extending the benefits of potato production depends on improvements in the quality of planting material, farming systems that make more sustainable use of natural resources, and potato varieties that have reduced water needs, greater resistance to pests and diseases, and resilience in the face of climate change. During the four-day conference, more than 90 of the world’s leading authorities on the potato and development research will share insights and recent study results to develop strategies for increasing the productivity, profitability and sustainability of potato-based systems for specific kinds of economies, FAO said. On the third day of the conference, participants are scheduled to visit a 12,000 hectare “Potato Park” near Cusco, where farmer-researchers have restored to production over 600 traditional Andean potato varieties, providing plant breeders with the genetic building blocks of future varieties. One of the expected outputs of the conference has been dubbed the “Cusco Challenge,” a year-long dialogue within the global potato science community that will address issues and opportunities in the future development of the crop.