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Andean Potatoes Take The World Stage

For the first time in its history, the World Potato Congress will take place in Latin America, the “birthplace” of the potato.

From May 27 to 31 of this year, hundreds of people from around the world will descend on Cusco, Peru, to attend the 10th annual event, organized by the not-for-profit World Potato Congress Inc.

The World Potato Congress is dedicated to supporting the cultivation and development of potato around the world. This 10th WPC will mark the first time the event will be held in Latin America, and will showcase the Andean origins of the potato.

It’s timely, really, that the World Potato Congress is meeting in this part of the world at this time. While it’s exciting to learn more about how the modern-day potato evolved from its humble beginnings high in the Andes, it’s also worth noting that climate change could be threatening this ancient crop – and its peoples.

Kenneth Feeley, the Smathers Chair of Tropical Tree Biology in the University of Miami’s department of biology, and fellow biologist, Richard Tito, a native Quechua Indian from the region, discovered that tough times lie ahead for rural farmers growing the Andes’ staple crops – corn and potatoes. The two recently co-authored a study published in Global Change Biology, about this phenomenon.

In their first experiment, the researchers simulated what will happen if farmers continue cultivating the same areas amid rising temperatures. To do this, they grew corn farther down the mountain, where temperatures are slightly higher (they carried in the soil from where the corn is normally grown because the soil at the top of the mountain is different in texture and nutrients than the soil at lower elevations). The simulation revealed that, with just a small temperature increase of 1.3 degrees to 2.6 degrees, nearly all the corn plants were killed by invading birds and pest insects. Potato plants fared even worse. When potatoes were grown at lower elevations (but in their normal soil), most of the plants died, and any potatoes that survived were of such low quality they had no market value.

In a second set of experiments, the researchers simulated what will happen if farmers try to counteract rising temperatures by moving their corn farms to higher elevations. (Potato crops are already grown along mountain peaks, so moving those farms higher isn’t an option.) To accomplish this simulation, the researchers grew corn under normal temperatures but in soils carried in from higher elevations. When grown at a higher elevation the corn plants survived, but the quality and quantity of the harvest was greatly reduced.

Feeley stated there were big decreases in the yield, quality and market value of the corn and potatoes planted under the simulated future conditions. Notably, much of the decline was due to increased damage by pests, something that is often not taken into account in greenhouse or lab studies.

The study measured the crops during a growing season within the remote Huamburque area of the Andean Amazon basin, where elevations range between 3,000 and 4,000 metres. According to Feeley, farmers in this rural area of Peru lack the means to purchase genetically modified varieties of corn or potato, as well as pesticides to remove the pests or commercial fertilizers.

What’s immediately obvious is small communities in rural places don’t have the technology or market access to quickly adapt to climate change. Certainly some farmers might be able to switch their crop to a variety that is tolerant to higher temperatures, but many lack the resources to save their crops by using irrigation pumps or fertilizers.

It will be interesting to see how the potato industry and its scientists view this part of the world during the World Potato Congress in May. It’s hoped they realize these high-altitude farmers are in jeopardy as are millions of people who depend on these crops throughout the Andes. And as climate change continues its march northward, that’s something to take into account as the 21st century marches on.

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