The Correct Way to Apply Bio-Technology!!!
Peru's potatoes saved by science
After years of blight and scarcity, Andean farmers are now
producing a spud harvest on par with the US.
Special to The Christian Science Monitor
This colonial town of adobe homes with tiled roofs is nestled in a
lush valley in the shadows of the icy Andes. And until a few years
ago it also lived under the ever encroaching shadow of agricultural
What was at risk? The humble spud - a staple of the local diet.
Even though potatoes are indigenous to Peru, the campesino farmers
from this area were having little luck with their potato crops a
decade ago. They were weathering a drought and repeatedly getting
stiffed with shipments of useless, blighted and virus-infested
Today, things are quite different along the slopes and folds of
the local mountains. Thanks to a cutting-edge planting method and
the assistance of an Italian charity, the Chacas Catholic parish
now harvests a thriving potato crop and is able to give sustenance
to the poor. A patchwork of fields are now densely dotted with the
tiny purple flowers of potato plants.
"Before ... we had to buy our potatoes because we had nothing to
eat," says Hugo Terazona, a campesino farmer whose sun- and
wind-weathered face disguises his 2O-something youth. "Now we
always have potatoes, and we are protected because we have [them]
for the whole year...."
This dramatic change is largely due to the assistance the
International Potato Center (CIP) has given Operation Mato Grosso,
a group of Italian volunteers who work through the local parish.
The CIP, a Lima-based agricultural-research organization, has
rescued the Chacas farmers with its new method of seed production.
"We have demonstrated that there is an alternative for propagating
potatoes in a much cheaper way," says CIP scientist Nodeltal Pallais.
"This is a gigantic change for a crop that was domesticated 8,000
Indeed, the Chacas parish now spends three times less on crops and
produces six times as many potatoes. Their 86,000 tons per acre
each year is on par with yields in the US and in Europe. In
addition to feeding hundreds of people every day, they are
producing enough potato seeds to distribute to nearby campesino
All over the world, potatoes are grown by planting tubers that
produce genetically identical plants, or clones. This method takes
a very long time, and has many steps, each of which leave the
potato prone to pathogens - especially in tropical climates. In the
late 1970s, CIP started researching a new method of potato
propagation which uses a "true potato seed" (TPS).
With this process, the hundreds of minuscule seeds in the berry of
a pollinated potato flower are planted in seedbeds. They then grow
into plants and produce tubers, which are then planted directly in
the fields. With TPSs, it takes fewer seeds to produce a higher
Campesinos in Chacas are now growing a TPS potato developed at CIP
in the early 1990s, which the Chacas parish has proudly christened
"Chacasina." This potato is a cross between a tasty local potato
and the less-epicurean potato CIP scientists developed for disease
This technology actually has roots in pre-Columbian Peru.
Scientists believe that at the time when the Spaniards arrived here
over 500 years ago, the Incas had already begun researching the
benefits of planting with TPSs.
Dr. Pallais has been distributing Chacasina TPSs for free all over
Peru and receiving rave reports from the beneficiaries. Potatoes
produced this way are ideal for subsistence farmers and
disaster-relief organizations, because they are cheaper and produce
potatoes faster. CIP scientists came to the aid of farmers in
Honduras and Nicaragua by showing them how to use TPSs after
Hurricane Mitch had leveled their crops.
Recently, the CIP has branched out into some other promising
potato projects - namely, returning ancient and forgotten varieties
to the table.
All over the world, people eat large, white, smooth-skinned
potatoes that come from one species of potato. In Peru, however,
there were once thousands of varieties in in yellows, reds, and
purples - with a taste- bud boggling spectrum of flavors.
Over the past decades most of these potatoes have disappeared. "We
used to have many kinds of potatoes that had delicious tastes and
were really pretty," says campesino Santiago Rodriguez. Taking a
break from tilling with a wooden hoe, he continues, "But then the
blight started coming and took them all."
Fortunately, about 40 years ago, CIP scientists combed the
hillsides of Peru's Andes and collected 3,500 varieties of native
potatoes. The world's official repository of potato plants, CIP
started working with these samples a few years ago.
Pallais believes he will be able to develop new varieties with
some of the positive characteristics of native potatoes. One of
those (besides flavor) is a longer root network - enabling the
potatoes to grow with less irrigation water, an increasingly scarce
The farmers are also reintroducing these native potatoes to the
Andes. Just last week, CIP sent a variety of native potato plants
to Chacas. Now that potatoes are again plentiful, parish officials
say they can attend to the demands of the palate.
"You could eat the native potatoes without salt, without
anything," recalls Mr. Rodriguez.
"We would be proud to have back the old potatoes we ate when we were
+-[Quote of the day, powered by k. wiegand]-----------------+
| Si Dios no hubiera descansado el domingo |
| habría tenido tiempo de terminar el mundo. |
| - Gabriel García Márquez, "Los Funerales de Mamá |
| Grande", 1974 |
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