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Shawkat Begum is encouraged by the results the International Potato Center’s diversification initiatives in Asia have produced in Bangladesh. ALL PHOTOS: INTERNATIONAL POTATO CENTER.

Searching for an Agile Potato

The International Potato Centre is conducting research in Asia it hopes will lead to a shorter-season spud and greater use of sweet potato that will provide more and better choices for growers in the region.

It’s no secret that rice has been the dominant crop in Asia for some time. It’s estimated that more than 90 per cent of the world’s rice supply is produced in the region and it occupies more land there than any other single crop.

A team of researchers with the International Potato Centre (CIP) recently began work on a program that it hopes will provide more and better planting choices for growers in Asia while enhancing farm incomes and food security.

The research is part of CIP’s new strategic program oriented to enhance food security in Asia through intensification of cereal-based systems. A primary focus for CIP researchers is what has been dubbed the ‘agile potato’, a short-season variety that could be ready for harvesting within 70 days of planting and could be grown between rice crops in lowland areas.

While some short-season varieties are already available in the region, they are very susceptible to biotic and abiotic stresses that make it not worthwhile for most farmers to grow them.

Greg Forbes is leading the International Potato Research Center’s agile potato strategic program in Asia. He says the ultimate aim of the diversification initiative is to develop new high-quality varieties that can be grown in a shorter period of time and are more stress-resistant.

Greg Forbes is leading the International Potato Research Center’s agile potato strategic program in Asia. He says the ultimate aim of the diversification initiative is to develop new high-quality varieties that can be grown in a shorter period of time and are more stress-resistant.

Greg Forbes, CIP’s agile potato program leader for Asia, says the ultimate aim of the diversification initiative is to develop new high-quality varieties that can be grown in a shorter period of time and are more stress-resistant.

“It’s not like there aren’t [already] some potatoes that that have very short seasons. There are. But they aren’t really optimal right now for farmers in this area,” Forbes says via telephone from China. “That causes problems — it increases the cost, it lowers the profitability for potato [and] it creates dependencies on things like seed importations.”

The diversification program is still relatively new, with research having begun just a few years ago. Much of the focus has been in China, India and Bangladesh, three countries where potato consumption rates are at or above world averages. Research is also being conducted in other nations such as Vietnam and Myanmar.

While it might be hard for North Americans to imagine potatoes being grown in the same field as rice, it does work and has been working in some areas in Asia for decades. Because the fields are kept artificially inundated during the rice-growing season, there is already sufficient moisture in the soil when it comes time to plant seed potatoes. And since average temperatures in lowland areas usually range between 5 C and 15 C during cooler seasons, it’s ideal for growing potatoes.

Forbes says one of the key areas CIP researchers are focusing on is developing stronger resistance to some of the major stressors in the Asian region.

In India and Bangladesh, many existing varieties are particularly susceptible to disease and viruses such as late blight. The problem with that is it forces growers in those countries to be far more reliant on imported seed and excessive pesticide use. Forbes say the hope is that CIP’s research will lead to growers in the region being able to develop at least some of their own seed potatoes while reducing their reliance on pesticides.

Another challenge the researchers are dealing with is high salinity levels in many fields. While potatoes can potentially grow in these areas, existing varieties don’t do well in them, according to Forbes.

Bangladesh Research

In Bangladesh, CIP has with the financial support of the United States Agency for International Development teamed up with the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute and several NGOs to improve farm incomes, agricultural production methods and access to healthy foods. The researchers are looking to develop short-season varieties of both potato and sweet potato that are more drought-tolerant and disease resistant and provide higher nutritional values.

Sweet potato has been a priority for CIP since the 1980s and it has achieved great success in Sub-Saharan African introducing beta-carotene rich Orange Flesh Sweet Potato into local diets in Sub-Saharan African. This program is now being expanded into Asia by CIP through its program devoted to Resilient Nutritious Sweet Potato.

Shawkat Begum, CIP’s chief official for Bangladesh, says a considerable amount of the research efforts in her country are being devoted to the sweet potato, which has experienced a downward trend in cultivation since the 1980s. “In our dietary culture, sweet potato is seen as a very neglected crop,” says Begum.

Part of the problem is that sweet potato traditionally had a short shelf life in Bangladesh, which Begum says is the reason her team has been studying improved storage methods. A recent trial produced an 80 per cent survival rate in sweet potatoes that had been stored for seven months. Such results mean significantly higher prices for producers at urban markets, she says.

Begum says another important part of the efforts by CIP and its partners is a nutrition messaging communication strategy among the targeted community members. In addition to promoting the use of sweet potato and potato to the general public, they have also worked closely with farmers to teach them how sweet potato vines can be multiplied. The goal is help farmers produce more of their own supply of sweet potato seed and promote gender equality for female farmers, who perform 95 per cent of the planting in Bangladesh.

Beta-carotene rich orange flesh sweet potato breeding efforts in Bangladesh began in 2007 and are currently taking place in different agro-ecological conditions of Bangladesh. The group released two new sweet potato varieties in 2013 that contained higher beta-carotene content (which produces the orange colouring in some sweet potatoes) and higher dry matter.

Begum says two potato varieties that are late blight resistant were released in 2013 as well. The team is expecting to release more potato and sweet potato varieties that are tolerant to salinity, heat and drought this year.

Begum says she and her colleagues have been pleased with the results of the project, which will continue until at least September, 2015. “What we are seeing, the difference year by year, has been [significant],” she notes. “Now [farmers] are more motivated. Compared to the first year, farmers are now expanding their land area for sweet potato production. Now the farmers are linked to urban market so they are earning good money.”

 

Challenges in Asia

Still, CIP’s work in the region hasn’t been without its challenges. Forbes says there has been less buy-in among growers in parts of Asia than what the organization has witnessed in Africa and Latin America.

“I’m not sure [why],” he says. “I think some of it is possibly potatoes are fairly new to the region. Rice and wheat have been around much longer and are huge crops. It may also be a lack of human resources.”

Forbes says CIP plans to take an integrated approach with the project as it moves forward, much like what’s already done in places like Bangladesh, in an effort to maximize resources.

The International Potato Center’s deputy director for R&D says a short-season lowland potato variety could provide additional revenue for farmers in Asia and provide greater food security.

The International Potato Center’s deputy director for R&D says a short-season lowland potato variety could provide additional revenue for farmers in Asia and provide greater food security.

“Part of being more strategic about it is if something works really well, we can have a network in place to try and move it somewhere else quickly rather than having more independent projects around the region,” he says.

CIP’s results to date in Asia could be just the start of things to come. Oscar Ortiz, CIP’s deputy director general for research and development, says Asia is one of his organization’s strategic geographical targets for the next decade and it plans to “intensify [its] activities in the Asian region.”

If the project is ultimately successful, it could go a long way in providing greater food security in one of the most impoverished regions in the world, Ortiz says.

“We have seen in the food crisis of 2008 and ’09 where wheat and rice prices went up significantly, some of those countries had fierce problems to find sufficient food,” he adds.

“By [diversifying] there is the possibility of making those countries less dependent and farmers less dependent on rice and cereals in general. We are not going to change the cereal-based system. They are going to continue with rice or wheat. But we want to introduce and intensify in a sustainable way another crop that provides additional income and food on the same available land.”

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