Potato has gone a long, long way

By Henrylito D. Tacio 

The world is getting smaller each day.  Between 1980 and 2000, global population rose from 4.4 billion to 6.1 billion.  By 2050, the population is expected to reach a whooping 9 billion. 

To keep up with the growth in human population, more food will have to be produced around the world over the next 50 years than has been during the past 10,000 years combined, said the participants of the recent UN-backed forum in Iceland on sustainable development. 

Good farmland is unlikely to increase, however.  Though the so-called “green revolution” of the 1960s – based on fertilizers and new strain of rice, wheat, and corn – has done much to close the hunger gap in poor countries, it cannot satisfy the appetites of the next generations. 

“If we continue to think of solving food problems only in terms of traditional crops, many of which are now fast approaching their yield ceilings, we may be limiting our options for meeting future challenges,” lamented Dr. Hubert Zandstra, former director general of the International Potato Center (CIP).   

Now, will potatoes come to the rescue?   Experts think so. 

Recently, potato has been given finally the attention it deserved.  During the World Food Day celebration last October, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) declared 2008 as the International Year of Potato. 

“In most places, potato is eaten by poor people,” commented Jacques Diouf, FAO director-general.  “Through increased productivity, the developing countries have doubled their production in 15 years.” 

Currently, potato is the fourth largest food course of food for the world – after rice, wheat, and corn.  Every year, 350 million tons of potatoes are produced, 52 percent of these in developing countries. 

“The potato trade represented US$6 billion in 2005,” the FAO head reported.  “This trade has doubled in volume and has risen fourfold since the mid-1980s.  So it’s a growing product in terms of its impact.” 

While potato production declined in developed countries by around one percent over the last 20 years, Diouf said that it increased by about five percent in developing countries over the same period. 

The name “potato” is believed to be derived from the Inca name “papa.”  The association with Ireland is thought to be responsible for the name “Irish potato,” which is retained even though potatoes are grown almost all over the world. “The potato is continuing its march,” said a CIP official.  “There’s just something about potatoes that everyone likes.  It goes with anything.” 

The history of the potato has its roots in the windswept Andes Mountains of South America. It is an austere region plagued by fluctuating temperatures and poor soil conditions. Yet the tough and durable potato evolved in its thin air (elevations up to 15,000 feet), climbing ever higher like the people who first settled the region. 

The tough pre-Columbian farmers first discovered and cultivated the potato some 7,000 years ago. They were impressed by its ruggedness, storage quality and its nutritional value. The modern world did not come in contact with the potato until as late as 1537 when the Spaniards tramped through Peru. And it was even later, about 1570, that the first potato made its way across the Atlantic to make a start on the continent of Europe. 

At first, potato was thought to be poisonous.  Antoinette Auguste Parmentier, a French pharmacist, thought otherwise.  He persuaded King Louis XVI to let him plant a field of the tubers and to station royal guards around it by day but leave it unguarded at night.  As the canny pharmacist expected, peasants slipped in and raided the plot under cover of darkness.  Soon, potatoes were being eaten all over the realm. 

When Scotch-Irish immigrants started to settle in Maine in 1791, they brought potatoes along into what was to become one of the United States.  It was, however, American president Thomas Jefferson who returned from Paris to introduce ‘pomme frites’ to his people.  Now as American as apple pie, they are promoted as “American fries” at MacDonald’s and similar eateries in other parts of the world.  

Although the Spanish most likely brought the potato to the Philippines, the precise date or circumstances of the introduction is unknown.  History records showed that the first mention of the potato in the Philippines was made by the Jesuit naturalist, George Joseph Camel, who lived in the Archipelago in the late 18th Century. The term “papa” was recorded by him as the word used by Filipinos and Spaniards to designate the crop. 

Although potato was first introduced in the Philippines in Cebu, it was not until in the 1920’s when the crop was brought to the highlands of Luzon, particularly Mountain Province, that potato was given importance.  By the late 1930’s it was being produced in greater quantities.  The demand for potatoes increased significantly with the continuing presence of American in Baguio, Manila, and the military bases. 

More than 90 per cent of the production of potatoes takes place in the highland areas of Northern Luzon (Benguet and Mountain Province) followed by upland production areas of Bukidnon province of Mindanao (particularly around Mt. Kitanglad in the areas of Kubayan, Intavas, Kibinton, Impasugong, Dalwanga and Lantapan).  Scattered but very limited production is found in the mountainous areas of the Visayas. 

“A potato crop produces more edible energy and protein per hectare and per unit of time than practically any other crop,” says the Laguna-based Philippine Council for Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCARRD). 

“Potatoes are exceptionally nutritious: they are rich in potassium, iron, magnesium, vitamins B and C, and complex carbohydrates, have a better quality protein than soybean and are 99.9 percent fat-free,” said an article which appeared in the October 13, 1990 issue of The Economist. “The idea that they are fattening is a myth.” 

Currently, there are about five thousand potato varieties grown in 130 countries around the world.  In Asia, the top growers are China and India. 

In the Philippines, potato is consumed as a vegetable and occasionally as a snack item. It is ideally cooked with meat, often as a meat extender in recipes such as ‘adobo,’ ‘egado,’ curry, and ‘lumpia.’  There are about 12 Philippine companies that produce potato chips and snacks.  Demand for French fries is growing at the rate of 23 percent per year. By the way, the potato is part of the nightshade family and as such does have some disagreeable traits.

One should never eat anything green from a potato. The leaves and stem are poisonous. Potatoes should be stored in dark, but dry places. Light will cause the formation of solanine on the skin of the potato. Though not likely to cause serious harm, green skinned potatoes can taste bitter and may result in temporary digestive discomfort. — ###

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