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TUBER TIDBITS

JUST AS MY Lithuanian ancestors worshipped trees, Wife Dottie’s side of the family worships potatoes. We even have a couple Christmas tree ornaments honoring the tuber. Thus, I read with interest the cover story in Science, February 8, 2019: “The New Potato,” by Erik Stokstad.

Potato tidbits shared here include this tuber’s origin, history, and global consumption trends; challenges to its cultivation attributable to fungi, climate change, and marketing; and agronomists’ responses in potato genetics.

Potato Lore. Erik Stokstad writes, “The closest ancestors of cultivated potatoes evolved in the Andes, where people domesticated the plant at least 7000 years ago. After the Spanish brought the tuber to Europe in the 16th century, it remained a botanical curiosity and was mostly fed to livestock. Europeans began to eat potatoes in earnest only in the 1800s, during the famines of the Napoleonic Wars.”

But what a fine nutritional source it is: Stokstad notes, “A potato can grow in cold climates and poor soil…. Once harvested, its energy-rich tubers are packed with vitamin C, can be stored for months and cooked in many ways.”

Diverse potatoes, such as these from Peru, are helping breeders create new varieties. This and the following image from Science, February 8, 2019.

An acre of potatoes can provide up to four times the calorific value of an acre of grain. After wheat and rice, it is the world’s most important food crop.

Potato production has grown in Asia, particularly in China and India, while falling in Europe.

China has doubled its potato harvests over the past 20 years. Developing countries have entered the picture too: Stokstad writes, “Uzbekistan and Bangladesh, among other nations, have come to depend on the potato for food security. In 2005, developing countries for the first time grew more potatoes than the developed world.”

Late Blight and European Revolutions of 1848. Stokstad says that the potato’s great scourge is the fungus-like pathogen Phythophthora infestans, causing a disease called late blight.

It was P. infestans that led to Ireland’s Great Famine of 1845–1849. Mass starvation, disease, and emigration followed. Wikipedia notes, “The food crisis influenced much of the unrest in the more widespread European Revolutions of 1848.”

The Great Famine, an Gorta Mó/Drochshaol. Illustration by James Mahony in The Illustrated London News, 1847.

Even today, Stokstad notes, “Rich countries use fungicides to minimize the devastating losses from late blight. But in developing countries, 15 percent to 30 percent of the crop is ruined.”

Enter the CIP. Our family would be happy to learn that there’s an International Potato Center, CIP, Centro Internacional de la Papa, headquartered in Lima, Peru, and coordinating global research.

“In Peru and around the world,” Stokstad writes, “enhancing the potato has become a high priority.” For example, wild potatoes from Mexico have evolved in the presence of P. infestans and have been found to resist many of its strains.

Potatoes and Climate Change. Another challenge is climate change, with its temperate to tropical shifts and erratic weather. Researchers see Solanum commersonii, one of three wild potato relatives in Brazil, as promising: “The wild potatoes here are probably pretty adapted to the extreme weather that will be happening more frequently with climate change.”

Stokstad cites a success story: CIP released four new varieties in Kenya, and the new potatoes maintained yields with 20-percent less rainfall and temperatures higher by 3 degrees Celsius.

Genetic Challenges. The hardest part, Stokstad says, is “getting desirable genes from wild species into cultivated potatoes…. Because breeding lines have four copies of their 12 chromosomes, the traits of the two parents show up in the next generation in largely unpredictable combinations.”

One example of potato hybridization has fast-food implications: Farmers supplying food-processing companies have to worry about irregularly shaped tubers. “Such complexities,” Stokstad notes, “have prompted the Dutch government to commission a study of the potential socio-economic impact of hybrid potatoes.”

I wonder if they’re looking for Frietjes tasters? I have a whole family of them. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2019

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