International Year of the Potato

11 July 2008

Chips, mash, roasted or baked, the humble potato is not just a versatile vegetable.

The potato is the 4th largest source of carbohydrates in the human diet and may hold the key to help fight global hunger and poverty.

So, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has declared 2008 the International Year of the Potato.

Potato experts, including Dr Sandy Knapp, botanist at the Natural History Museum, will help raise awareness of the importance of the tuber and there will be potato-related events in countries around the world.

'As research on biodiversity, plant breeding and genomics accelerates,' says Dr Knapp, 'the potato looks set to play an ever more important role not only in aiding our understanding of genetics and nutrition, but in feeding a still-growing human population.'

'It is fitting we celebrate a plant that has given our species so much, and still has so much to offer.'

A popular food

An average European will eat 96kg of potatoes each year. Potatoes are full of starch, and follow rice, wheat and maize as the world's most important source of carbohydrates. They contain vitamin C, protein, iron, vitamins B1, B3 and B6, and many minerals such as potassium and folate.

Since 2005, potatoes have become increasingly important in developing countries and they have overtaken developed nations in potato production (especially China and India).

The high nutritional value of potatoes and the potential to boost income for growers is something experts believe deserves more attention from governments.

Related to the tomato

Potatoes belong to the Solanaceae, or nightshade, family of flowering plants. They are members of the genus Solanum> , which has at least 1,500 other species including the aubergine (eggplant). All potatoes produce small, round green fruits full of seeds, and in fact tomatoes are potatoes closest relation. Potato fruits, however, are not edible.

Potato origins

About 8,000 years ago, people living in southern Peru near Lake Titicaca began cultivating the wild potato plants that grew in abundance there. Since that time, the Andes in South America have been the source of thousands of varieties. They were a staple food of the Incas and are still a very important part of the diet in the area.

Potato diversity and climate change

There are about 200 wild species of potato found in the Americas. They are likely to hold the key to potato disease resistance as they are more genetically diverse than cultivated potatoes.

However, the types of potatoes eaten today come from only one cultivated species, Solanum tuberosum. It is crucial that the wild species are protected as they are increasingly under threat from habitat destruction and also from climate change.

Potato blight

Late blight is a water mould and is the most serious potato disease in the world. It caused the Irish potato famine in the mid 19th century that resulted in a million deaths and huge numbers of people emigrating to the United States.

Genetic studies are already giving insights into how blight resistance can be improved, as well as how to increase the tubers' nutritional content and understand more about the origins and diversity of both wild and cultivated potatoes.

Dr Sandy Knapp is interviewed on Radio 4's Leading Edge on Thursday 10 July. Listen again here.

An article celebrating the International year of the Potato is published in the scientific journal Science