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December 31, 2008

Economic crisis threatens “potato boom”

Booming potato production in the developing world could falter as the global economic slowdown reduces investment, trade and potato farmers’ access to credit, a new Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) report warned on December 15.

The threat comes at a time when potatoes have become an important staple food and a lucrative cash crop in many developing countries. China is the world’s biggest potato producer, and Bangladesh, India and the Islamic Republic of Iran are now among the world’s leading potato consumers.

PotatoesDrawing on the most recent FAO statistics, the report, New Light on a Hidden Treasure, shows that the potato is the world’s number one non-cereal food crop, with total production reaching a record 325 million tons in 2007. More than half of the global harvest was produced in developing countries.

However, the report says “dark clouds are gathering over prospects for the year ahead”. The global economic slowdown threatens to reduce flows to developing countries of investment and development assistance, including the support to agriculture that has helped many countries strengthen their potato sectors.

Developed countries may be tempted to raise trade barriers, which already apply stiff tariffs on imported potato products, while the banking crisis will leave many farmers with no credit to invest in production in 2009.

“Urgently needed is a vigorous new agenda for potato research and development aimed at protecting countries’ food security and providing new market opportunities for potato producers,” said NeBambi Lutaladio, coordinator of FAO’s International Year of the Potato 2008 secretariat.

Currently, potato yields in Africa, Asia and Latin America average just 15 tons per hectare, less than half of those achieved in Western Europe and North America. To strengthen potato farming in developing countries, FAO and the International Potato Center have called for “potato science at the service of the poor” to provide potato growers with better quality planting material, varieties that are more resistant to pests, diseases, drought and climate change, and farming systems that make more sustainable use of natural resources.

“Farmers in highland areas of Africa can harvest 25 tons of tubers from one hectare in just 90 days, which is why potato production is booming in countries like Uganda,” said NeBambi Lutaladio. “When you add value to production like that, through better storage and processing, you not only meet food needs, but have a highly profitable cash crop that can drive economic development and sustain livelihoods.

“But technology improvements need to be accompanied by other, more general measures for agricultural development, such as improved farmer access to extension, credit and production inputs, better post-harvest management and links to agro-processing and markets,” Lutaladio said.

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