The potato is a profitable crop in tropical countries. It has higher yields and is more nutritious than white rice. Despite this, production levels remain very low. Farmers, governments and plant breeding companies are insufficiently informed about the complex cultivation process. Wageningen UR aims to change that.
Potatoes do very well in the tropics. Better than elsewhere, in fact: After all, they originated in the highlands of Peru. Many tropical countries have cooler climates offering up to three harvests a year.
Healthier than rice
Potato cultivation offers many benefits to farmers and the wider population. Potatoes are healthier than rice as they also contain protein, fibre and vitamin C in addition to starch. In tropical areas, potatoes are currently mainly eaten by growers and their families, with only a small part traded and able to reach the population in cities. This is unfortunate as there is considerable demand for potato. A growing and increasingly affluent middle class likes to eat crisps and French fries. Hotels, too, need to provide for this demand. As a consequence, potatoes are imported at high cost. Growers could therefore get high prices for potatoes that are especially suitable for processing into crisps and fries.
The cultivation of potatoes is more complex than it seems at first glance and dependent on know-how. Good production demands the following:
- a sophisticated range of potato varieties to keep diseases under control. This means resistant varieties must be readily available for strategic deployment by growers;
- a government policy that regulates cultivation conditions, such as a compulsory fallow period or prohibition on growing varieties not resistant to nematodes in a region highly affected by them;
- a good division of tasks between government and industry;
- growers who know exactly how to grow potatoes free of disease;
- a crop tailored to the needs of the market;
- availability of fertilisers and pesticides.
Many tropical countries lack this foundation for a good and healthy production so production falls far short of potential. A lack of knowledge can even make entire regions unsuitable for the cultivation of potatoes.
Scientists improve knowledge about potato cultivation
Scientists from Wageningen UR advise governments on which policies to deploy and how to maintain them. They help seed companies get organised in a way that allows them to efficiently disseminate seed potatoes among the growers. Farmers are advised on how to minimise the likelihood of diseases and maximise yield. In addition, the scientists work closely with Dutch companies that produce top quality seed.
There are currently potato projects in Argentina, Chile, China, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Russia, Rwanda and South Africa. And there are other countries with a good potential for cultivation where the growing urban population could benefit from home-grown potatoes.