Let them eat spuds: potatoes – the world’s new staple?
When the order came down from the top brass of Bangladesh’s armed forces it sounded like a joke. Some of the soldiers and sailors who were told that from now on their daily rations would include increased servings of potatoes almost certainly did not take it seriously either.
But in a country where rice is overwhelmingly the staple dish, this was no laughing matter. With Bangladesh and the rest of Asia gripped by a rice crisis that has sent governments into panic, last Friday’s announcement by the military that it was turning to the potato to supplement its troops’ rations was for real. “The daily food menu now includes 125g of potato for each soldier irrespective of ranks,” it said.
But it is not just in Bangladesh that the humble spud is being turned to for help. With world food prices soaring and with riots breaking out everywhere from Egypt to Indonesia, experts believe that increased use of potatoes could provide at least part of the solution. Easy to grow, quick to mature, requiring little water and with yields two to four times greater than that of wheat or rice, the potato is being cultivated more in an effort to ensure food security, agronomists say.
Such are the hopes being placed on the tuber that the UN named 2008 the International Year of the Potato. “As concern grows over the risk of food shortages and instability in dozens of low-income countries, global attention is turning to an age-old crop that could help ease the strain of food price inflation,” said the world body.
“It is ideally suited to places where land is limited and labour is abundant, conditions that characterise much of the developing world. The potato produces more nutritious food more quickly, on less land, and in harsher climates than any other major crop.”
The emergence of the potato as a potential solution to global hunger comes amid mounting concern about the increased cost of food around the world. The price of rice, wheat and cereals has soared in recent months, as a result of the increasing price of oil, rising demand and uncertain supplies. Many countries have been forced to take special measures to protect their food suppplies. India, for instance, recently banned the export of rice except for its premium basmati.
The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, expressed his own concern about the mounting food prices at globalisation talks in Africa this weekend, saying they posed “a threat to the stability of many developing countries”. Meanwhile, the UN’s food envoy, Jean Ziegler, went much further, saying they were leading to a “silent mass murder” that he blamed on the West.
Mr Ziegler said that growth in biofuels, speculation on the commodities markets and European Union export subsidies meant the West was to blame for the problem. “Hunger has not been down to fate for a long time – just as Marx thought. It is rather that a murderer is behind every victim. This is silent mass murder,” he told the Austrian newspaper, Kurier am Sonntag.
“We have a herd of market traders, speculators and financial bandits who have turned wild and constructed a world of inequality and horror. We have to put a stop to this.”
Against such a stark backdrop, the global challenge being presented to the potato by its champions could hardly be tougher. And yet, already the potato is quietly going about its business, often in places that one might not normally associate with it. Indeed, around the world it is the third most-produced crop for human consumption, after rice and wheat.
Take China. Already the world’s largest producer of potatoes, the country has set aside large areas of additional agricultural land in an effort to increase their cultivation. India has told food experts it wants to double potato production in the next five to 10 years while Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan are also working to increase the area under cultivation for potatoes. Belarus currently leads the world in potato consumption, with each inhabitant eating an average of 376lb a year.
In the north-east Indian state of Nagaland, which borders Burma, local authorities are working with NGOs to develop quick-maturing potatoes that can be grown between the region’s two rice harvests. It is seen as an additional source of food rather than a replacement and the NGOs are working with the communities to educate people about the benefits of the potato and how to grow it. (Could the chip butty become a Nagaland delicacy?)
In Peru, where the potato was first cultivated, a doubling in the price of wheat in the past year has led to the launch of a government programme to encourage bakers to use potato flour rather than wheat flour to make bread. As part of the scheme, potato bread is being given to schoolchildren, soldiers and even prisoners in a hope that it will catch on. At the moment, there is a shortage of mills that are able to make potato flour.
“We have to change people’s eating habits,” Ismael Benavides, Peru’s agriculture minister, told Reuters. “People got addicted to wheat when it was cheap.”
Meanwhile, in Latvia, a sharp increase in the price of bread in the first two months of the year saw sales fall by up to 15 per cent. To make up for the Latvians’ shortfall in calories, sales of potatoes increased by around 20 per cent.
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