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Dr He Changchui *

Your Excellency Mr Theerachai Saenkaew, Deputy Minister for Agriculture and Cooperatives,
Excellencies and distinguished members of the diplomatic corps,
Honourable guests,
Distinguished participants,
Ladies and gentlemen,

On behalf of the Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Dr Jacques Diouf, and personally, I take great pleasure in welcoming you all to the FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific to commemorate the International Year of the Potato (IYP).  This event is organized by the FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific in cooperation with the Government of Peru through its Embassy in Thailand, and is one of a series of activities worldwide to commemorate IYP.

As you may be aware, the United Nations General Assembly at its sixty-eighth session in December 2005 declared 2008 the International Year of the Potato (IYP). The resolution, submitted by the Government of Peru and co-sponsored by the Latin American and Caribbean Group of Countries, invited FAO to facilitate the implementation of the IYP in collaboration with governments, the International Potato Center (CIP) and its associated research networks, centres of the Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), other organizations of the United Nations system, as well as non-governmental organizations and private sector stakeholders.

The UN Declaration of the IYP reflects the importance of the potato in the diet of the world’s population. It affirms the need to focus world attention on the role that the potato can play in providing food security and alleviating poverty in support of achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). The IYP provides another opportunity to raise awareness about food security, agriculture and rural development among policy-makers, donors and the general public.

The potato contributes to many aspects of society. The crop should not be looked at in isolation, but within the framework of the complexities of sustainable agriculture and food systems. The potato is the world’s most important tuber vegetable, with a vital but often underappreciated role in the global food system. It is a staple food that contributes to the energy and nutritional needs of more than a billion people worldwide. Potato cultivation and post-harvest activities constitute an important source of employment and income in rural areas, especially for women in developing countries. Potatoes can be used as a staple food, as a cash crop, as animal feed, and as a source of starch for many industrial uses.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The world’s population is expected to grow on average by some 100 million people a year over the next two decades. More than 95 percent of the increase will be in developing countries where pressure on land and water is already intense. A key challenge facing the international community is, therefore, to ensure food security for present and future generations, while protecting the natural resource base. The potato will play an important part in our efforts to meet this challenge.

The potato is grown worldwide. In most of the developing countries today, the potato is considered to be the fourth most important food crop after rice, wheat and maize. Therefore, the potato should be a major component in strategies aimed at providing nutritious food to the poor and hungry. Potatoes are rich in protein, calcium, potassium, and vitamin C, and have an especially good amino acid balance. The crop is ideally suited to places where land is limited and labour is abundant, conditions that characterize much of the developing world. Moreover, the potato is a highly productive crop. It produces more food per unit area and per unit time than wheat, rice and maize. It is a nourishing food crop which has sustained civilizations for centuries in South America and Europe It is becoming increasingly important in Asian diets and economies. China is the leading producer of potatoes in the world and India ranks third. In fact, of the 350 million tons of potatoes produced annually in the world, China and India alone produce a third of this. Although potato production declined in developed countries by around 1 percent over the last 20 years, it increased by about 5 percent in developing countries over the same period. The major source of growth has been in Asia, primarily in China and India.

One of the crop’s assets is its adaptability. Farmers in the tropics can harvest potatoes within 50 days of planting — almost a third of the time it takes in colder climates. In highland areas of southern China and Viet Nam, the potato is emerging as an off-season crop; planted in rotation with rice and maize, it brings relatively high prices in the market. Similarly, in the lowlands of Bangladesh and eastern India, the potato’s importance as a winter cash crop is rising rapidly. In the Philippines and parts of Indonesia, potato production helps to satisfy the demands of exploding domestic and regional snack food industries.

There is no doubt that in recent times the potato has become significantly more important for Asia and the Pacific region, which, like many other parts of the world, is facing enormous challenges today as a result of soaring food prices. Moreover, at the mid-point of the target year of the MDG, 2015, we are convinced that the region needs much stronger efforts to produce more food by substantially improving agricultural productivity in order to make greater contributions to food security and poverty reduction.

Ladies and gentlemen,

There are still many technical problems and development-related issues that directly affect potato production and potato-based food systems. Allow me to elaborate on some of the challenges.

Biodiversity: To combat pests and diseases, increase yields, and sustain production on marginal lands, today’s potato-based agricultural systems need a continuous supply of new varieties. This requires access to the entire potato gene pool. But potato biodiversity is under threat: ancient varieties cultivated by Andean peoples for millennia have been lost to diseases, climate change and social upheaval. Indeed, the history of the potato provides a grim warning of the need to maintain the genetic diversity of our staple food crops.

Economy: Despite its importance as a staple food and in combating hunger and poverty, the potato has been neglected in agricultural development policies for food crops. Subsistence potato growing in developing countries is declining as producers reorient toward domestic and international markets. These markets continue to expand, and in 2005, for the first time, the developing world’s potato production exceeded that of the developed world.

Biotechnology: The potato industry has benefited from major recent discoveries about plant’s genetics, physiology and pathology. Use of molecular markers helps identify desirable traits in potato collections, thus simplifying the development of improved varieties. Sequencing of the complete potato genome, now under way, will significantly increase knowledge and understanding of genetic interactions and functional traits. Genetically modified varieties have the potential to produce more stable yields, improve nutritional value and facilitate non-food industrial uses, but they must be carefully assessed before release.

Pests and diseases: Intensive potato cultivation tends to increase pest and disease pressure, which often leads to intensive use of harmful pesticides. Resistant potato varieties and improved cultural practices can reduce or eliminate many common pests and diseases. Integrated pest management has helped farmers drastically reduce the need for chemical controls while increasing production.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Responding to these challenges is essential to the development of the potato sector and to sustainable potato production as well as food systems, for long-term food security, human nutrition, and poverty alleviation.

The potato has great potential for development. However, we have to recognize that the crop, despite its merits, has not received the attention it deserves from governments. Inadequate institutional support and infrastructure, lack of established marketing channels, insufficient fund and credit support, and restrictive trade policies are but a few impediments to scaling up production and commercialization of the sector, which needs special promotion at national, regional and international levels.

In this connection, and taking into consideration the importance of this crop in the region, this one-day workshop aims to: raise awareness of the merits of the potato; review the situation regarding the potato sector in Asia and the Pacific region; and elaborate on key issues and propose further actions needed to promote sustainable potato crop production and development in the region.

I trust the workshop will produce tangible outputs. I look forward to your recommendations for follow-up action.

Thank you.

*Assistant Director-General and FAO Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific, FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, Maliwan Mansion, 39 Phra Atit Road, Bangkok 10200, Thailand.

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