Another, albeit quieter, revolution is taking root in China. This one involves not politics, but the humble potato.
As reported in our story “The New Staple Food in China”, potato production and consumption is being dramatically reshaped in the world’s most populous nation, already an important player in the global potato industry.
In January, the People’s Republic of China announced plans to drive up domestic potato consumption. The government aims to make the potato, grown for 400 years in China and already a popular vegetable in Chinese cuisine, a fourth staple food after rice, wheat and maize.
There’s been significant growth in Chinese demand already this decade, according to Yan Feng, an official with the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture who says domestic consumption has gone up 40 per cent in the past five years.
Growth on the supply side has been even more impressive. China is now the world’s largest producer of potatoes because of rapid expansion that’s occurred since the 1980s. According to Peter VanderZaag, the Canadian potato grower and scientist who’s spent decades helping to develop the Chinese potato industry, there’s been a six-fold increase in potato production in China in the past 30 years.
The initiative to bolster domestic potato production will push production to even greater heights. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, there were more than 95 million tonnes of potatoes (representing a quarter of the world’s total) grown on just over 5.5 million hectares of land in China in 2013. The plan is to almost double this area to 10 million hectares in order to better safeguard the country’s grain supply.
Government officials maintain enhancing food security is a primary impetus behind the move. There is a shortage of farmland to feed China’s 1.3 billion people, and the potato, with its ability to weather environmental stresses, is viewed as one solution. It can also be grown on vacant fields in the south during the winter months.
As Feng puts it, “With our limited land and water resources, the potato’s higher-yielding, drought- and cold-resistant traits make it [an ideal crop].”
Feng says there are currently 50 million jobs in the Chinese potato industry. The new government initiative will create more jobs, and make potato even more important to the Chinese economy.
Another notable purpose of the initiative is to help alleviate poverty. By increasing Chinese potato consumption, it is hoped that this will also drive up farmer incomes in impoverished areas.
“In the past two decades, since the rapid development of the potato industry in some of the poorer regions of China, many potato farmers have risen out of poverty — and the potato industry has become the backbone of those communities,” says Feng.
China has 1.3 billion people, many of them poor and malnourished. According to FAO statistics, 12 per cent of China’s population suffered from under-nutrition in the two-year period ending in 2012. That’s a staggering 150 million people, or more than four times the population of Canada.
Rice and noodles made from wheat dominate the dinner table in China. The potato, with its many nutritional qualities, is seen as a way to not only diversify China’s dinner offerings, but also enhance the diets of many of the nation’s poor. That is most certainly a worthy objective.