Sandra writes that some 368 million metric tons of potatoes were harvested globally in 2019, as people from Vietnam to Kenya, the Peruvian Andes to Rwanda produced a wide variety of the root vegetable, helping feed an estimated 1.3 billion people who rely on them as a staple food. And this is a minimum threshold – potato production is expanding across parts of Africa and Asia.
In step, researchers around the world are hurrying to find ways to increase the quality and yield from potato production through targeted varieties better suited to local weather and soil conditions. ‘Climate-smart’ potatoes are also being bred to be more resistant to deadly disease and sturdy enough to withstand some effects of climate change, including heat and drought.
“Our target is improving food security,” says Thiago Mendes, a Kenya-based potato breeder with the International Potato Center (CIP), which is headquartered in Lima. More “robust” varieties of potato are being developed through genetic diversity, accomplished by combining various genetic strains of potato, he says.
A lack of genetic diversity has long menaced potato production: it was a contributing factor to Ireland’s devastating potato famine in the mid-19th century when crops of the same potato variety succumbed to late blight, a devastating micro-organism that infects and causes the decay of tomatoes and potatoes, wiping out the harvest across the country.
Mendes and his colleagues are crossing susceptible domesticated potato varieties with numerous types of their wild spud relatives through the pre-breeding work under the Crop Wild Relatives (CWR) project, a 10-year project led by the Crop Trust to collect important species of crop wild relatives, ensure their long-term conservation, and facilitate their use in breeding new, improved crops.