In June, Chilean Agriculture Minister Marigen Hornkohl revived the controversy when she said "99 percent of the world's potatoes are related to potatoes of Chilean origin."
"The Chilean potato is the grandchild of Peruvian potatoes," the head of Peru's National Institute for Agrarian Innovation (INIA), Juan Risi, told IPS, echoing the theory that potatoes spread from the highlands. Peru possesses over 2,000 native varieties and 91 out of the 187 wild species of potatoes known so far.
Risi also pointed out that U.S. taxonomist David Spooner determined that potatoes from the Peruvian Andes first reached Europe in 1570, and that Chilean potatoes only arrived there much later.
But Andres Contreras, an academic at the Universidad Austral de Chile and curator of the germplasm bank of native Chilean potatoes, quoted the same researcher to IPS in support of Hornkohl's claim.
Spooner and Mercedes Ames studied the DNA of potato varieties that grew in Europe between 1700 and 1910, and concluded that 99 percent of them were genetically related to Chiloe potatoes, which probably survived a devastating potato blight, he said.
Izquierdo holds another view. Just as 99 percent of the world's potatoes are genetically related to potatoes originating in Chile, "99 percent are also genetically related to potatoes originating in Peru. In other words, they coexisted. Potatoes will always carry genes from varieties found in Chile and Peru," he said.
The conclusive answer may emerge in 2010, in the final report on the work of the international Potato Genome Sequencing Consortium, in which Chile and Peru, among other countries, are participating.
"I hope chauvinistic nationalism will be laid aside, as it contributes nothing to scientific development and protection of the potato, which is a multicultural and cross-border resource," said Izquierdo, who added that policies were urgently needed for "information on, production and marketing" of native potatoes.
Chile is planning to complete the registration of its 286 native varieties of potato with the governmental Agricultural and Livestock Service (SAG) this year, while the Peruvian Agriculture Ministry created a national register of native Peruvian potatoes on June 3 to record 2,670 varieties.
Risi said that when the 2004 International Treaty on Phytogenetic Resources for Food and Agriculture came into effect, the potato was added to the list of foods at the service of humanity, which means its varieties can be shared with other countries, in exchange for benefits, and even payment.
"The state must register the variety to ensure recognition of the benefits, and must also reward the communities of small farmer who originally cultivated it and have conserved it for years," he said. Although Peru has not yet adopted this mechanism, the government has recognized 30 families for their conservation work as a symbolic gesture.
Peruvian researcher Mario Tapia, who is on the IYP commission, said the government should work on four points requested by potato growers themselves.
The farmers want facilities for creating a national association of producers of native potatoes, access to organic fertilizers, community fairs for the exchange of seeds in order to maintain genetic diversity, and incentives for potato consumption, such as emphasising the crop's nutritional qualities and promoting its marketing, so that small farmers can earn a fair income.
In Chile, farmers' associations, companies and local governments in Chiloe, together with the Universidad Austral, began an innovation project this year to strengthen the potato production chain on the islands, financed by the Agriculture Ministry's Foundation for Agricultural Innovation (FIA).
"Potato growing on Chiloe is precarious. Production is mainly for subsistence, and the areas planted are tending to shrink due to the high cost of fertilizer," the program coordinator, Mauricio Campos, told IPS.
"The importance of native potatoes as a resource is greatly underestimated. People generally eat improved varieties," he said. Examples of growing and conserving native potatoes are still few and far between, he added.
The Quemchi Group of Native Potato Producers, created in 2005 with financial support from the FIA, forms part of the initiative. Ten small farmers plant potatoes on one-quarter of a hectare each, the head of the group, Marisa Bustamente, told IPS.
The farmers have storage facilities for 12,000 kgs, and sell their potatoes mainly to restaurants and hotels in Santiago. But they would like their own processing plant. "Our greatest need is training and regular technical advice in order to improve production," said Bustamente.
Potato producers in Peru, who make up 600,000 of the country's 1.8 million farmers, receive the lowest income for their produce in the market. The prices they are paid range from less than 20 to 70 cents of a dollar per kg for hybrid varieties, which covers only half the cost of production.
Native varieties are prized for their taste, color and nutritional value, as they are rich in carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. But the return to the producer is minimal after discounting costs like transport over long distances.
"We are the worst affected within the potato production chain, and also the most vulnerable to soaring food prices," Javier Garcia, the national coordinator of potato producers, told IPS.
There are also other kinds of adversity, like crop disease and climate change. Because of this, Garcia's organization has asked the government to grant tax exemptions to those who grow potatoes at more than 3,500 metres above sea level.
Risi said that INIA researchers are working on a joint program with the World Bank to develop action plans to deal with climate change in Peru.
"While our countries waste time arguing about the origin of animal and plant species, developed countries are using our germplasms to create new materials and claim property rights," said Contreras, of Chile's Universidad Austral.
Genetic improvement contributes to "solving our local production problems, avoiding the loss of ancient varieties and widening the genetic base of cultivated potatoes," he said. There is some experience of genetic improvement in Chile, and even more in Peru, but there is a lack of adequately qualified personnel.
Peru has mounted a television, radio and billboard campaign to try to increase potato consumption from 75 to 100 kgs a year per person. Some native potatoes have high contents of anthocyanin and beta-carotene, which help prevent cancer, according to INIA.
Increased potato consumption is also being promoted in Chile, where people eat around 50 kgs per person per year. On Jul. 24 the Agriculture Ministry created the National Potato Center in the southern city of Osorno, which will take over responsibility for the already existing program for genetic improvement of potatoes. A Technological Consortium has been established as well.
On Oct. 16, World Food Day, the FAO Latin American and Caribbean regional office will publish the first international cookbook by the Chefs against Hunger program, with original recipes using potatoes as their key ingredient.
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Albion Monitor August
5, 2008 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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