NeBambi Lutaladio

New light on a "hidden treasure"

As the roots-and-tubers specialist at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome, NeBambi Lutaladio found himself with an additional task in 2007 - to coordinate implementation of the International Year of the Potato (IYP)

The announcement of the International Year was met with scepticism. Do you think people are starting to see the point now?

"Some people were surprised by the UN's dedicating a whole year to something as common as potatoes. But we saw it as a great opportunity to raise global awareness of the potato's true value for rural people, for the economy and for world food security, and also to focus attention on FAO's overall mandate, which is agricultural development. The momentum is really building now. That is partly thanks to our information campaign and the positive response of governments and the private potato sector. Also, with world food prices rising, the potato is attracting a lot of attention as an alternative food crop."

The slogan of IYP is "hidden treasure". In what way has it been "hidden"?

"Many people were simply unaware that potato feeds the world - it is our most important non-cereal food and its production has been increasing in developing countries faster than that of any other major crop. Its role in nutrition is also often under-valued, and in developed countries the potato is often associated with over-weight. So, one of the objectives of IYP is to educate people that potatoes have positive nutritional benefits, that they are rich in fibre, vitamin C and potassium, and have good quality protein. Finally, the potato also has great 'hidden potential' for productivity increases - some potato scientists say a 30 percent increase in yields is now within reach."

IYP maintains that potato production can help achieve UN Millennium Development Goal No. 1, to reduce poverty and hunger. How?

"To meet that goal, we need agricultural development that benefits small-scale farmers, who make up most of the world's poor and hungry. The potato is very well suited to places where land is limited and labour abundant. They grow fast, they are adaptable, high yielding and responsive to low inputs. Farmers in highland areas of Africa can harvest 25 tonnes of tubers from one hectare in just 90 days, which is why potato production is booming in countries like Uganda. 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."

Potato yields in the developing world are a third of those achieved in some developed countries. What needs to be done?

"To increase productivity, IYP is promoting is a shift in developing countries to potato-based farming systems that use quality and reliable seed potato, varieties that are virus-free and drought resistant, improved plant nutrition and integrated pest management. 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."

How are countries around the world celebrating IYP?

"Naturally, we've seen a lot of enthusiasm in the Andean countries of South America, with National Potato Days, potato growers' congresses, festivals of biodiversity, cooking contests. Elsewhere, we have a nation-wide campaign to promote potato consumption in Bangladesh, scientific conferences on potato production, poverty alleviation and late blight, and potato harvest festivals in rural areas and towns across North America and Europe. And ordinary people are organizing art exhibitions, block parties, school events. We have limited funds to support these events, but we are providing seed funding for national IYP committees in 20 countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America to support awareness campaigns."

You mentioned food price inflation. Can potato really help lower food prices?

"That is something FAO is studying very closely now. International prices of most agricultural commodities - not just for cereals, but for vegetable oils, soybean and dairy products - are at very high or even record levels. One of the longer term strategies that can help ease the strain of food price inflation is to diversify the crop base to nutritious and versatile staples such as the potato. Unlike major cereals, the potato is not a globally traded commodity - its prices are determined usually by local supply and demand, so it escapes the kind of speculation we are seeing with cereals. The potato can be a crucial food security crop that helps vulnerable consumers ride out turmoil in world food markets."