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Future Challenges and Opportunities for the Potato in a Global Context

The following is the Closing Plenary Address at the closing ceremonies of the 2015 World Potato Congress, held July 27 to 30, 2015 in Yanqing County, Beijing, China. It was delivered by prominent Canadian potato grower and scientist Peter VanderZaag, a special advisor for the WPC who has long ties with the Chinese potato industry.

Introduction

At the end of this great Potato Congress, we view the future and ask the important question: “What does the future hold for the Potato, the Humble Spud, the Earth Bean (Todou)?” We have read and heard excellent presentations on a host of important topics. We see a world, where food production is a high priority to be able to feed over nine billion people by 2050. We believe that the potato is a significant component in accomplishing this monumental task. The International Potato Center (CIP), Chinese Potato Association and the World Potato Congress (WPC) and many others including our sustaining members are committed to making this happen.

Let me share with you insights on the key factors that will influence where and how the potato develops further as a commodity crop and where it will be utilized globally. This is based on my analysis of the abstracts of papers submitted to this congress and my experiences and observations from travelling and working in many of the potato regions of the world.

International Trade of Processed Potato Products

The world will soon be a “One Big Country” as trade barriers are eliminated and shipment of goods becomes more and more globally well organized. The cheapest and most efficient producing areas will grow more and more while others will be more disadvantaged. The northwest United States has the highest potato yields on the planet. This can be attributed to their unique dry climate with high solar radiation, cool night temperatures, long growing season and irrigation water. They are and will continue to be a major player on the global market for processed products, particularly frozen french fries.

Northwest Europe has a similar yield advantage under rain-fed conditions. Belgium has already dramatically expanded its export market of processed potato products over the past number of years. High yields reduce the cost per unit, which allows their products to be exported around the world. Belgium is the world’s leader in exporting frozen french fries, followed by The Netherlands with Canada and the USA being a distant third and fourth.

The highlands of Eastern Africa are somewhat insulated from this importation of processed products as Western style fast foods, including french fries, are not yet a major player in the market. Processing companies will undoubtedly establish processing factories in the near future. Can locally produced products compete with European sourced product in terms of quality and cost?

International Trade of Fresh Potatoes

In Asia, I see southwest China becoming an even greater exporter of potatoes to the neighboring Southeast Asian countries. Trade agreements are already scaring potato farmers in Southeast Asian countries, who fear the invasion of cheaper Chinese potatoes into their traditionally urban markets such as Manila and Jakarta. China already exports large quantities to Vietnam, Russia, Pakistan and Malaysia; whereas, the Asian subcontinent suffers from seasonal harvest gluts, from February to April. In addition, the highlands of southwest China can provide the needed potatoes when storage quantities and quality decrease in the lowland cities of South and Southeast Asia, during the later part of the off-season, sometime within September to December.

The very ambitious “Belt and Road Initiative” of the Chinese Central Government will have far reaching influence! Expanded shipping lanes to Africa and Europe along with a new railroad access to the seaport at Karachi through western China and Pakistan will allow more Chinese potatoes produced in the north and western parts of the country [to] move to the Middle East and possibly Africa too. China’s ambitious plan of digging a canal across Nicaragua from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean and a future planned rail line from Brazil to the coast of Peru, will change the world’s trading scenario making it easier to import and export fresh potatoes and processed potato products.

In India, winter crop harvest during January to March is exported to markets as far away as Russia as well as to neighboring countries in the Middle East, Mauritius and the Maldives. Will this be an expanding opportunity? India already has over 6,000 cold storages that can store over 23 million tons of potatoes! Certainly, these figures will continue to increase as potatoes are the ideal crop during the winter dry season on the plains of India where average yields in areas with tube well irrigation are close to 30 tons/hectare.

Landlocked East African countries are maybe somewhat isolated from these trade pressures and can be self-sufficient in their potato production and utilization. Interestingly South Africa has and continues to export substantial quantities of potatoes to neighbouring countries including Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe and Zambia in most of Eastern Africa, potato ranks second to maize as a very important component of the diet.

Consumption Trends

Demand for quick packaged foods are increasing amongst the upwardly mobile populations around the world. How do fresh potatoes compete in the market considering the time and effort for peeling and cooking?

We have heard here at the Congress about education, promotion and communication on the health benefits of potato for all ages. Will these concepts reverse the declining trends in fresh potato consumption seen in developed countries? The “Food Health Value” card touches a segment of the population. Is this enough? The strategy of selling small ready-to-eat potatoes that simply need a quick boil or microwave is playing a greater niche role in North America. Pre-peeled, pre-cooked and ready-to-microwave recipes need to be promoted worldwide for urban consumers, who have other choices. Price is a major factor in the future success of fresh potato.

India is of particular interest, as per capita consumption is already at 30-35 kilograms/person/ annum. Potato is incorporated into the diet in many traditional ways. Potato curry is the mainstay with many tasty additions making it and other dishes very popular. It also plays a major role as a low cost food in the Indian diet.

Sustainable Potato Production

By the end of 2015, the Millennium Development Goals will change to Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). What role will the potato play in promoting sustainable agriculture? The potato is considered the best crop for producing energy and protein per unit of land and water. Is the water use for potatoes sustainable? The Technical session on Water gives some interesting areas for optimism! Improved Water Use Efficiency (WUE) through mulching, water placement, irrigation timing of reduced volumes are all important small steps. The general increase in CO2 concentrations not only can help increase potato yields but can also reduce stomatal opening to reduce transpiration and respiration water loss. Are we stealing water from future generations by lowering water levels in continental aquifers in Asia and North America? In the long term, will northwest Europe have a greater comparative advantage because of its adequate rainfall?

The yield gap is the obvious sustainability issue. If the calculated yield potential was actually attained, the WUE and many other inputs would be more optimally utilized. Research on late blight resistance through cisgenics and understanding the fungus and on how it operates in the plant would be the biggest contributors to better management. Eventually, this will reduce the yield gap in the high rainfall areas of the highland tropics.

In South Asia, the yield gap in the dry season after rice can also be reduced through improved seed quality. Better adapted varieties that are more heat tolerant to allow for a later harvest period into April and May would be a direct benefit by reducing cold storage needs. Neighboring highland areas need to supply potatoes for the lowlands during the later part of the off season to keep processing plants and consumers of fresh potatoes supplied all year.

In East Africa, bacterial wilt is the biggest constraint after late blight. With climate change and increased potato production, this disease is increasingly problematic. Control measures need to be sustainable, permitting potatoes to be grown in proper rotation with other crops. Sanitation and clean improved seed supplies are essential to combat this problem. This is a major challenge with no easy solution for many small subsistence farmers of East Africa.

Plant Breeders Rights (PBR)

The demand for improved varieties for different end users from various ecological zones remains to be one of the biggest constraints for closing the yield gap and meeting consumers’ demands. PBR is only valid for 25-30 years for a registered variety in most countries of the world. This is too short a period of time to reap the returns on the investment into developing the variety for private potato breeders. It takes 15 years to get a successful variety to scale. Then a breeder has only 15 years left for collecting royalties to pay for the investment in developing hundreds of varieties of which only one was selected.

Honouring PBR is another issue that remains difficult to enforce. Some interesting Public Private Partnerships (PPP) are working well. The DuRPh project is a good example of public money going into cisgenic research, which private breeders can also benefit from. CIP has established several PPP, which will reap benefits for both farmers and breeders in the developed and developing countries of the world.

Public Acceptance of Cisgenics and Gene Editing

This requires education, communications and brave Political leaders, who will not only accept these technologies and likewise understand that they are just expediting traditional breeding in a targeted way using only Solanum spp. genes. The arguments for sustainable potato production using these techniques are very plausible and once one or two countries jump on board with these new and improved traditional varieties, others will soon follow. The benefits for small farmers in the highland tropics of all three continents would be tremendous as late blight management would be less costly and yields would substantially increase.

Gene editing promises to help by easily doing targeted improvements in quality. Acrylamides and other internal tuber characteristics can easily be improved. The work of Simplot is leading the way in going through the regulatory process.

Resiliency and Creativity of Potato Farmers

Farmers are ready to change and adopt new technologies if there are financial returns. The example of Belgium with the use of “iPot” as a means whereby they can get actual yields close to Potential yields by using satellite imagery and other techniques to fine-tune their production practices. Through this they have reduced per unit of production cost and developed a hot export business for frozen french fries around the globe.

Small farmers in the lower elevation valleys of Yunnan work together to grow potatoes after rice during the winter dry season from November to April. By having larger areas of 100 hectares in one block, they harvest their crops in an orderly fashion to buyers from the big cities of China’s east coast. Trucks are loaded and cash is paid on the spot. I have measured yields of 87 tonnes per hectare! Potato is a high value crop! They say that the rice transplants can wait in the seed bed until the potatoes are harvested. Farmers see an economic opportunity, produce a good quality product and the results are self-evident.

Seed potato production using aeroponics in China is another example of creativity and resiliency! With some government support, private entrepreneurs have invested in aeroponics and have successfully launched basic seed potato production systems using this technology. Again it improves the quality of potato planting material and financial benefits are reaped by selling the basic seed. Farmers who purchased the seeds benefit through improved yields and economic returns.

For over 30 years, farmers in Dalat, Vietnam had annually produced millions of rooted cuttings from clean tissue culture plants, of the best varieties, as a starting point for commercial potato production. This has resulted in a high quality and high yielding potato crop in the entire area serviced by these rooted cutting providers. These highly skilled rooted cutting providers have thrived in a capitalist setting. The commercial growers/buyers are able to get high yields and can keep seed for up to seven generations before renewing their seed stock.

China’s Potato as a Staple Food Strategy

In China’s quest for food security, the government has turned to the “Earth Bean” or Todou, which is coined as the “Perfect Food” to help fill a large portion of the food supply gap. The potato is being promoted as the ideal modern food which should be on the plates of ordinary people. Why the potato? The potato is seen as best in WUE in a country where water is a scarce resource and land area for cultivation is decreasing. Comparatively, yields of rice, wheat and maize are not increasing.

The strategy requires strong central government intervention to ensure that there is market demand and competitive price to encourage increased potato cultivation. Processing plants and refrigerated storage facilities will need to be built in the southern provinces where expanded acreage of winter crop potatoes is possible. Processing potatoes hold great potential, however; are there suitable varieties that can make good french fries and can these compete with products from the USA?

Fresh potatoes can be promoted through cookbooks, advertising of new recipes, and combining potatoes with other vegetables and cereals in local dishes. Extending cereals by adding potatoes is both an old and a new way to use potatoes. Potato utilization can also be increased by mixing potato flour with wheat flour for making noodles, steamed bread and dumplings.

Public perception is important. The potato needs to be seen as a trendy food rather than a cheap food for the urban population. It can also serve as “Bread for the Poor” in the remote parts of western China wherein an estimated more than 50 million are still living in poverty. Major poverty pockets would benefit greatly from more potatoes.

Summary

The theme for this Congress is “Develop together for a better future”. In the past several days, we started this process here. The work before us is daunting, however if we pursue this theme, we can do it together. Countries cannot do it alone. Disciplines can’t do it in isolation. Sectors of the potato business cannot do it on their own. Attainment of this goal requires serious collaborative effort from all the players involved in potatoes production and utilization.

Together we can develop the potato industry for a better future of all mankind!

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