The guardians of the Andean potato

The guardians of the Andean potato

For Andean farmers, the way forward is clear. The way to combat climate change is to keep to the calendar and respect the phases of the moon: sow in October to harvest between May and August.

(International Potato Center/Centro Internacional de la Papa)

The Pachamama or Earth Mother is the most sacred place for Andean farmers. Sixty-five-year-old Jose Palomino from Andahuaylas was initiated into the world of potato growing as a child, working alongside his parents. The people of this Peruvian province, set at an altitude of 2,995 metres, are dependent on the harvest of the most prized native product, the Andean potato or “papa” as they prefer to call it in Quechua.

Palomino produces hundreds of varieties every year: red, purple, pink, yellow and even blue. His collection of 800 native potato varieties, with over 60 different colours and pigments, attracts geneticists and farmers from around world.

“The potato is Peru’s heritage and one of our country’s greatest contributions to the world,” says the man who succeeded in making his farmlands a model of conservation.

Whilst recognising that they enjoy food sovereignty, he is concerned about the vulnerability of Andean farmers in the current context: “Climate change is affecting potatoes. Many diseases are appearing that never used to exist at high altitudes.” He believes in the wisdom of nature and, like all the local farmers, takes great care of his resources: “Our way of combatting climate change is to keep to the calendar and respect the phases of the moon, sowing in October to start harvesting as of May, until August.”

The fundamental role of science

Tradition is preserved in the Andes whilst, in Lima, science is joining forces with it in the fight against climate change. The International Potato Center (CIP), an international body that has, since 1971, been working to preserve food security and is the world’s greatest custodian of the potato, is working with farmers on a journey from the field to the test tube and back. The CIP’s laboratories are being used to repatriate disease-free native seed varieties that are more resistant to change, produce greater yields and help farmers to recover the varieties under threat. Palomino confirms that thanks to this partnership, more organic tons per hectare can be produced.

At the CIP’s facilities, a rustic figure reminiscent of ancient civilisation greets visitors with tubers in both hands. The centre is the site of the world’s largest in vitro genebank. The earthquake-resistant building, with state-of-the-art technology, houses, in perpetuity, and mandated by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), almost 5,000 varieties of potatoes and thousands more of sweet potatoes from Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile and other parts of America.

Oscar Ortiz, deputy director general for research and development at the centre explains that preserving this diversity is fundamental, because it is already being lost in the fields: “Climate change is a major challenge. The Andes are going to have less water and higher temperatures. The potato is a genetic material that has developed over thousands of years in the Andes and you cannot put a price on that, it is incalculable, but the genes are there to address problems such as climate change and famine, now and in the future. That’s our job.”

The potato originated in Peru, 8,000 years ago, and was brought to Europe in the 16th century – by Spaniards – as a botanical curiosity. Today, the high-mountain, forest and arid climate in the Andean country enables scientists to investigate the adaptation and development of technologies that can then be transferred to Africa and Asia.

Forty-five years after being founded, the CIP now has offices in twenty countries including Ecuador, Kenya, India and China. All of them work with small farmers in an effort to achieve a greater level of wellbeing, income and nutrition.

At the same time, looking to the future, it also is using cryopreservation techniques to conserve shoot tips and study their reactivation in 50 years’ time. “We need to develop varieties that can withstand heat and tolerate drought. Advanced science is required such as genomics to identify the genes and varieties most resistant to the changes ahead,” says Ortiz.

According to the CIP, in recent decades, potato production has exceeded that of any crop in developing countries and is crucial to the food security of millions of people in South America, Africa and Asia.

It is the third most consumed crop, globally, after rice and wheat. Over 156 countries produce it and billions of people across the world eat it on a regular basis.

“The technology developed by the CIP and adopted by developing countries generates $150 million dollars a year,” underlines Ortiz. They are crops that are produced and consumed locally, which enables people to maintain their level of food security when other crops are not available or cannot be imported, especially in times of price crises.

Potatoes for sustainable development

Alleviating hunger, achieving food security, improving nutrition and promoting sustainable agriculture are among the United Nations sustainable development goals. The CIP is working towards these same goals, but the challenges are greater than ever. By 2050, the world population will reach over nine billion, according to UN forecasts, and the biggest growth will be seen in developing countries. Land, water and natural resources will come under greater pressure in these countries, which is why we cannot lose sight of the fact that potato produces more food in less land and more rapidly than any other major food crop.

“Our raison d’être is to support agriculture for development. We work in places where there is limited market access or where the private sector isn’t present,” says the CIP’s deputy director general for research and development.

The achievements are already visible. In 2016, three CIP researchers were awarded the World Food Prize for developing and taking sweet potato with orange flesh into many African homes. The tuber’s high vitamin A content helps to alleviate the malnutrition affecting millions of children as well as the resulting problems in terms of blindness.

Back in the Andean highlands, the Sacred Valley of the Incas has become home to the Potato Park, stretching over 9,000 hectares and where five indigenous communities work to preserve the ancestral crop. It is set at an altitude of between 3,400 and 4,600 metres and brings together 1,334 varieties. This agrarian ecosystem collaborates with the CIP and is the world’s largest natural potato custodian. The communities also manage microenterprises fostering the employment of women, a restaurant, a handicraft centre, a very popular seed bank, a centre processing medicinal plants, a museum and ever-growing agritourism.

The NGO Asociación Andes takes care of ensuring the biodiversity and sustainability of the model park. Its programme director, Alejandro Argumedo, explains that the terraced agricultural landscape in the Andes is one of the great strengths inherited from pre-Hispanic civilisations: “In this ecosystem, the farmers use traditional annual crop rotation to study the potato’s adaptation to climatic pressures.”

“The farmers feel proud of building bridges with scientists,” says Argumedo. Tradition is generating economic gains and is weaving global learning networks between communities and science. In April, the park will open its doors to 18 Central Asian, Southeast Asian, African and American countries. They will learn, from the Andes, how to implement this model in their mountainous regions.

This article has been translated from Spanish.