Each year at planting time, the high slopes and valleys of the Andes are dotted with community work crews planting their unique collections of five to 15 native potato varieties, after they have asked the “Pachamama” or “Mother Earth” for blessings with colourful songs, dances, and food and drinks for the occasion. Throughout the Andean region and for hundreds of years, this wealth from hundreds of communities nurtures the genetic diversity of the potato, to the benefit of the whole world.
Last year marked the fortieth anniversary of the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru. According to its website, CIP’s mission is to “work with partners to achieve food security, well-being and gender equity for poor people in root and tuber farming and food systems in the developing world. We do this through research and innovation in science, technology and capacity strengthening.” The work of CIP, led by director general Pamela Anderson, is unique in a global research system that occasionally seems geared toward improving the profitability of the rich. More than that, CIP’s conservation work contains an important message for the global potato industry: what we do today as growers, and how we do it, matters for the generations to come.
Janny van Beem, who works in the acquisition and distribution of genetic resources for the center in Lima, argues for the global importance of CIP’s work. “CIP has done significant research which has generated clones with resistance to viruses and fungi and tolerance to drought and frost,” she says. “These clones, in turn, have been used extensively by many breeding programs around the world.”
Much of CIP’s work is geared toward the protection of its genebank collections, which is important for the potato industry today and into the future. “Genebanks ensure the continued survival of cultivars, landraces and wild species that may have become extinct due to urban development or climate change,” says van Beem. “Many accessions have been evaluated in genebanks and brought to breeding programs in more than 100 countries in response to newly-emerging pathogens. It is therefore important to conserve what we collected decades ago, but also to continue to collect new accessions that may contain interesting genetic combinations.” CIP researchers are also actively engaged in protecting the rights of farmers around the world and honouring their local traditions—another aspect of conservation that both strengthens international collaborations and supports individual communities.
With its growing store of genetic information, now including some 7,000 native and wild potato accessions, researchers are equipped to tackle problems potato growers are facing around the world on a daily basis. This work of problem solving and conservation leads, in turn, to stronger markets abroad, and healthy competition internationally—which is good for everyone.
Storing and marketing this year’s potatoes and laying the foundations for next season might be the focus of most growers in Canada, but it’s good to remember that international research efforts are always boiling in the background, fuelling progress for the future.