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April 10, 2008

Potato receives more attention as cereal prices soar

Growing more potatoes could help countries like Kenya to improve their food security at a time of high cereal prices, an agricultural expert has said.

Potatoes are a more efficient food source than maize or rice, requiring less land and water than the cereals. About 80 per cent of the potato crop can be used for human consumption, significantly more than for cereals.

It is estimated that tropical farmers can produce about 20-25 tonnes of potatoes per hectare within 50-90 days of planting, said NeBambi Lutaladio, in charge of tuber crops at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. “The same area would yield only 10 tonnes of cereal after a longer period of time,” he said.

FAO is organising a series of events and conferences this year, which it has designated the International Year of the Potato, to boost research on more productive varieties of potatoes and ways of incorporating them into the food chain.

High cereal prices have already triggered government initiatives to substitute cereal-based foods with potato products.

In Peru, consumers are being urged to eat bread made with potato flour in a bid to reduce food price inflation driven by expensive wheat imports.

Production of potatoes is also growing faster than grains. By 2020, the average annual growth rate of potatoes will be 2.7 per cent, predicts the FAO, compared with 1.8 per cent for corn, 1.5 per cent for wheat and 1.3 per cent for rice.

The growth is particularly strong in developing countries. These accounted for half of the global crop — 320 million tonnes — in 2007, compared with a mere third in 1990.

China has become the world’s biggest potato producer, doubling its output in the last 10 years to 72 million tonnes last year.

But although the potato is easy to grow, making it a valuable cash crop for many farmers, getting access to added value sectors remains challenging. The knowledge on incorporating potato flour into foods is clearly far behind that of wheat flour, said Mr Lutaladio.

More work also needs to be done on linking small-scale sub-Saharan growers to domestic and regional commodity markets and improving the planting material available to farmers.

“We’re encouraging developing economies to create committees to discuss what needs to be done to make the crop more sustainable,” said Mr Lutaladio.

Kenya is the fifth biggest potato producer in Sub-Saharan Africa, with an output of 790,000 tonnes in 2006, according to FAO.

Business Daily Africa

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