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Potato Power: A veggie for a crisis

By Practical Action On 30.05.2024 Food & agricultureNews

You may not be aware of it, but May 30 marks the first ever International Potato Day. 

In a world grappling with conflict, climate change and economic instability, this humble vegetable is unlikely hero.

Providing a fast-growing, high yield sustenance, the potato has long been a vital and reliable food for people facing chronic hunger.

As of the close of 2023, nearly 800 million people worldwide were struggling with chronic hunger, and 350 million more did not know where their next meal would come from.

This represents an increase of 200 million people compared to pre-Covid-19 pandemic levels, and while the reasons for the surge in food insecurity is complex and multi-faceted, finding climate resilient, flexible, and fast-growing sustainable crops is vital in addressing hunger.  

Muna Eltahir, Practical Action Sudan Director, said, “I have seen first-hand how conflict and the changing climate are stirring up a hunger crisis that is putting our communities at risk. In places like Sudan, war tears families from their homes, crushes their ways of living, and throws whole economies into chaos, leaving hunger and hardship in its wake.  

“And as the climate keeps shifting, our lives, crops, and ability to fend for ourselves are taking heavy hits. We know we can’t just stand by; we must act fast or else hunger will cast an even darker shadow over those already struggling”.

Two people in a field, one crouching and one bending, are placing freshly harvested potatoes into burlap sacks beside a large metal basin.

The Ultimate Crisis Crop

At Practical Action, we believe potatoes can play a crucial role in addressing some of the problems the people we work with face, so we have made them part of our agricultural programmes for the following reasons: 

  • High nutritional value: Potatoes provide valuable carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals, making them particularly important for food security, especially in regions with limited access to a diverse diet. 
  • Popular: Around 1.3 billion people consume potatoes worldwide, making it the third most consumed crop globally. 
  • Resilience: Potatoes can grow in diverse environments, from the high-altitude regions of the Andes to the arid lands of Africa. This adaptability makes them an attractive crop for farmers facing adversity. 
  • Short growing cycle: Potatoes have a shorter growing cycle than many other staple crops, allowing for quick harvests and faster recovery during a crisis. This provides farmers with a vital source of income that can help mitigate the effects of economic hardships. 
  • Versatility: It can be boiled, baked, mashed, fried, or turned into countless culinary creations, and now potato starch is being used as an alternative to plastics. Materials using potatoes can be found in sustainable food packaging. 
  • Long shelf life: Unlike perishable fruits or vegetables, potatoes can be stored for extended periods without losing their nutritional value. This essential trait reduces waste and enables stockpiling to meet their dietary needs when other options may be scarce. 
  • High yield: with the correct growing techniques, potatoes are one of the most productive crops per unit of land, making it particularly an attractive option to smallholder farmers.  

From an ancient crop to global lifeline

Originating approximately 7,000 years ago in the Andes, the potato has travelled a remarkable journey. Although faced with initial resistance and scepticism, the potato found widespread adoption in places where it offered a reliable food source for regions with challenging climates and poor soil conditions 

In Europe, it significantly relieved food shortages during the 18th and 19th centuries and contributed to population and economic growth. The potato is also regarded as a ‘cold-climate’ vegetable, potentially under threat from climate change and warmer weather. But with around 5,000 different varieties available, it is an excellent option when looking for a nutritious crop that can be resilient to climate fluctuations.  

In Ireland, however, the overreliance on a single potato variety, the “Lumper,” led to disaster during the Great Famine of the mid-19th century, highlighting the risks of monoculture and lack of crop diversity. 

Beyond Europe, the impact on global economies and food security is also profound. In China and India, the cultivation of potatoes has helped sustain huge populations, providing a nutritious and efficient source of calories.

A person holding five small potatoes in their hands.

Cultivating resilience across continents

In present-day Sudan, civil war has displaced millions of people, putting enormous pressure on food systems and productive agricultural land already struggling with climate change and limited water resources.  

By adopting potato cultivation practices that prioritise water conservation, farmers have enjoyed valuable harvests while minimising the strain on already limited resources. By working closely with them, these farmers are now teaching their peers how to follow their lead. 

Our work is actively working with over 20,000 farmers, including internally displaced people and host communities in Kassala and Blue Nile states. The goal is to enhance farmers’ livelihoods, boost the local economy, and create a cascading effect on regional food security through cultivating and selling potatoes and sweet potatoes.  

Intisar Mustafa, Practical Action’s Project Manager for “The Sustainable Agrifood Systems Approach for Sudan initiative, said, “Potatoes offer several advantages for families in periods of conflict, with their short gestation period. It enables a steady food supply with quicker yields. Even farmers who may not have previous experience with potato cultivation have seized this new potato project as an opportunity to enhance their skills and knowledge, ultimately strengthening their capabilities.” 

Elsewhere, in Peru, Bolivia, and Nepal, where farmers use it not only as a food for their family, but for their livestock as well, Practical Action has recognised the value of the potato for decades.  

In the Andean landscapes of Peru and Bolivia, where indigenous people have been cultivating and consuming potatoes for thousands of years, Practical Action focused on supporting farmers to adapt to the harshest conditions made worse by climate change. 

A plowed field with parallel furrows under a clear sky, with a distant mountain range on the horizon. Sparse greenery is visible beyond the field.

In the Alturas Canchis Project, we worked closely with rural Quechua and Aymara families, who faced significant vulnerabilities due to their exposure to extreme climatic risks, such as hailstorms, frost, and droughts.  

This work led to the development of a sustainable natural resource management model for these high Andean regions, including training local farmers and peasant extension workers known as kamayoq, including seed diversification, irrigation systems, and improved market and finance access.  

We have also worked with marginalised remote communities in the high Andes to develop new markets for native, rare potato varieties. This led to the publication of a report on native potato varieties designed to showcase the importance they can play in biodiversity as part of an agricultural system for small holder farmers, further demonstrating the remarkable ability of the potato to thrive in almost any environment. 

In Nepal, we are helping farmers grow potatoes as part of their climate adaptation and crop diversification strategy via ‘farmer field schools’ in the remote western districts where we are implementing our UK Aid Match programme.  

Across the world, where conflict and changing weather patterns constantly pose deeply complex challenges, good yields of potatoes are bringing hope to communities.

Combining traditional wisdom with modern techniques and new varieties, our projects contribute to creating more opportunities for farmers to make an income and for communities to access enough nutritious food security, boosting their resilience.

As we look to the future, our focus is sharpening on extending our impact in Sudan, particularly within the growing communities in Kassala and Blue Nile.  

The escalation of conflict has not only disrupted lives but has made the quest for food security all the more critical. We understand that ensuring access to nutritious food in these trying times is inseparable from the work of peace-building — helping communities find stability, recover from the trauma of displacement, and rebuild their lives.