Potatoes, Part 2: The Future
By Dani Lind | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
I usually pick an obscure or underappreciated vegetable to write about for my Cooking Fresh column, but last winter I decided to write about the most common one of all—the potato. I broke the mold because I wanted to learn more about its history, but I ended up finding the potato’s story so fascinating and its impact on our world today so important and complex that I just couldn’t fit it all into one article. So last winter we published "Potatoes, Part 1: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," and this is part two.
A Brief Synopsis of Part One
We take the potato for granted as a boring starchy background food, but it’s so much more! The potato, with thousands of “landrace” varieties unique to very specific places and communities, sustained the ancient Inca Empire and their ancestors for millennia. The incredible genetic diversity of their potatoes acted as crop insurance against pests and environmental fluctuations.
After Europeans encountered potatoes when they “discovered” the New World, the tuber became a staple source of nutrition for seafarers and eventually provided the nourishment that fueled revolutions and the population explosions of Europe and North America.
As potato production increased, genetic diversity decreased to just a few commercial varieties, and the large, mono-crop plantings became susceptible to pests and disease in the 19th century, sparking the first large-scale chemical pesticide and nitrogen fertilizer industries. Fast-forward to present day, and potatoes have become not only the most important vegetable for feeding a rapidly growing global population, but also the most chemically polluted vegetable in the world.
I posed a question at the end of that article: “Can organic production meet the growing worldwide demand for cheap potatoes?” I don’t know the answer, so I decided to ask a local expert.
The Future of the Potato:
Feeding the World
Josh Engel and his brother Noah started growing potatoes organically near Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, when they were teenagers in the 1990s because potatoes were relatively easy to grow, harvest and store in our climate. At first the brothers grew about 10 varieties on a quarter acre of their parents’ organic dairy farm and called their fledgling operation “Rainbow Potatoes” for the colorful diversity of their crop. Now they run Driftless Organics with their partner Mike Lind, and the farm has expanded greatly over the last decade with lots of other crops and a community supported agriculture (CSA) program, but they still specialize in potatoes. They grow 10 to 15 different varieties for market (along with another 10 or so they raise for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Organic Seed Potato Project—more about that later) on about 12 acres.
Josh thinks that organic potato production holds great promise for feeding the world, both in small-scale subsistence and large-scale industrial farming. The wide diversity of potato varieties available around the world makes them suitable to an array of climates, soil types and other growing conditions, even adverse ones. And their ease of planting and harvesting makes them accessible both to the home gardener (“You can even grow them in a burlap bag on the patio of a 50th floor city apartment,” Josh says) and the big mechanized farmer. Josh thinks if their farm can manage potatoes organically, then any farm can if they put their mind to it.
Driftless Organics uses many techniques to combat pest and disease pressure on their potato crops without the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. They plant the majority of their potatoes late in the season to avoid potato beetles. They plant in newly broken ground and then use long crop rotations. They always use certified disease-free seed potatoes and choose varieties that are resistant to diseases like late blight (yep, the disease that caused Ireland’s Great Potato Famine of the mid-1800s is still the potato’s biggest threat today).
The most common thread I found while researching this article was that the diverse genetic heritage of the potato holds the key to its ability to sustainably impact world hunger. The UW-Madison Organic Seed Potato Project is a great local example of this. Josh works with plant pathology researchers to select and raise potato varieties that are suited to Midwestern climates and grow well organically (believe it or not, crops that are bred to do well when sprayed with chemical pesticides and fertilizers tend to be lazy) and to make more genetically diverse seed potatoes available to farmers in our region. The project has trialed hundreds of potatoes on organic farms throughout the state, both commercially available varieties as well as heirloom ones from Seed Saver’s Exchange in Decorah, Iowa. Eventually they hope to create improved strains of the varieties that do well and, perhaps, breed whole new ones that will be suited specifically to organic production in the upper Midwest.
In addition to the Organic Seed Potato Project, UW-Madison collaborates with the USDA to run the U.S. Potato Genebank near Sturgeon Bay, which contains the second largest collection of potato genetics in the world. The genebank team not only obtains potato germplasm (the hereditary material that gets passed from one generation to another) from other scientists around the world, but also collects wild potato varieties from the southwestern United States in order to preserve their genetic diversity and use it to breed improvements into cultivated potato varieties, such as increased productivity, increased nutritional value, disease and pest resistances, and tolerance to environmental stressors. If scientists can breed potato varieties that have natural resistance to diseases and pests, it means that organic potato farmers can increase their yields and conventional farmers can drastically reduce the amount of chemicals they spray.
The work of the U.S. Potato Genebank is complemented by work being done on a global level at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru, the largest holder of potato genetics in the world (cipotato.org). CIP’s mission is a big one: to “use research and development innovations to fight malnutrition, lift people out of poverty, and increase food security around the world.” They collect and preserve potatoes not only to preserve their biodiverse genetic material for future use, but also to actively produce new varieties that can overcome specific climatic and disease threats in developing areas around the world. This breeding program has spurred several amazing global programs that the CIP has partnered on, including one with early maturing potato varieties that can tolerate tropical and subtropical conditions in Asia, and a seed potato project in Africa that produces trait-specific varieties of disease-free seed for smallholder farmers in Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda.
Who knows what the future holds in terms of global food security and the potato’s part in it? But I, for one, am proud to find that Wisconsin is a leader in scientific research to develop new potato varieties and in the preservation of the potato’s diverse genetic heritage.
Delicious new recipes using potatoes:
And we can't forget these recipes from part 1:
Find all our recipes that include potatoes, as well as articles that mention potatoes, in Eat Seasonal: Potatoes.