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Re: Indigenous methods of food preparation: what is their impact on food security and nutrition?

Peter Steele Independent Consultant Agricultural Engineer, Italy
Peter Steele

New Crops, novel technologies and new opportunities for boosting food security in traditional societies - potatoes feed the world

Reflections on improved lives

My earlier contribution to the debate focused upon opportunities for food production, handling, processing and storage that arise as the result of technical innovation, which is then quickly taken up by local people as a result of socio-economic progress within local communities. This, I suggested, reflected the increased urbanization of people everywhere; people were (and remain) only too pleased to escape the sometimes archaic traditional practices followed by their parents, and particularly when this releases them from the drudgery imposed. It results in more productive lives.

Edward Mutandwa of MSU summarizes developments of this kind as leading to the abandonment and loss of potentially valuable knowledge, skills, technologies and more. This raises the rhetorical question of ‘value to whom’.

Power from steam no longer dominates our society; it’s been replaced by more efficient resources and appropriate technologies that better suit our modern-day societies. In our inter-connected and inter-dependent world, why would you want to continue to promote a 19th century technology?

Interest and enjoyment of new foods

This second contribution promotes the humble Irish potato representing, as it does, the opportunities that arise from the introduction of new foods into a community; new foods, by definition, do not always have a traditional background in the community.

The name ‘potato’ can sometimes be confusing. Whereas Irish potatoes and sweet potatoes share similarities in form and appearance when harvested and can be used for much the same culinary purposes, there is no botanical relationship between them. Both crops, however, are important foods. Irish potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) and sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas), respectively, rank #4 and #7 in global food production indices. The descriptor ‘Irish’ once used to differentiate potatoes from the more familiar sweet potatoes available in tropical regions has become less common as production has expanded in recent years.

Potential of potatoes

Potatoes represent food (and food security) from the most important of the non-cereal staples that feed the world. High water content, and timeliness and care required with handling and storage largely precludes ware potatoes from large-scale international trading, and thus fluctuations in price are affected more by local and national market impact. This is typical, for example, of East Africa – a region that is doing surprisingly well economically – with encouraging socio-political development.

As rural communities seek higher productivity from their land, potatoes become a logical choice – but optimal climate, soil fertility, water and crop management is required. Fail to make the best choices – varieties, timing, etc. and blight, for example, can decimate the crop. Get the choices correct and earnings, employment and food security out-perform all other basic smallholder food crops. You only have to explore the development of this crop, for example, in Malawi and/or Rwanda to appreciate the value of food crop intensification – the boosted productivity of small blocks of land – and the security of food supplies that follows.

But there is also much to be gained by further investment in production and post-production. Potatoes have the potential to produce ten times more food per unit area than cereals. Potatoes, moreover, have high nutritional value and, importantly, they match those changing demands of urban lifestyles for foods that are novel, quick and easy to prepare - and which project a sense of modern change. The future of urban foods in Africa, I suggest, has a chip-shaped crinkle and great taste (and snaps satisfyingly in the mouth).

Considering the value chain – not the crop/technology

But you need to consider the ‘value chain’ approach to crop development. Value chains provide us with a convenient means of exploring opportunities but, in the low-income countries, they are generally poorly understood and little supported. There is a paucity of services in support of growers, markets and processors in most places. Productivity in East Africa, for example, is half that of the best producers in Africa – in Egypt and South Africa; and 20% that of the best international producers who regularly harvest 40-50 tonnes/hectare.

This represents a considerable loss of potential, but one that is unlikely to change in the short-term given industrial performance that continues to focus upon minimum risk, limited investment and lack of coordination. Governments regular promote the viability of export opportunities – and these exist – but they fail to provide more than limited resources for R&D, extension and market information support, and none at all for agro-industrial investment.

Role for the private sector

National potato industries (NPIs) in the industrial countries are dominated by the private sector – all production, all services, all management and all markets. This contrasts with NPIs in East Africa, for example, where the traditional responsibilities of the public sector continue to prevail. Where Coops/NGOs have been established in support of growers however, and contact made with franchised restaurants in urban centres – to provide one example of potential – productivity has more than doubled. The key issue is one of producing to market demand – choice of variety, production to set quality standards of ware and delivery to set schedules.

Develop an action plan

It is not sufficient to monitor status, to determine the constraints to progress and to note opportunities for making a difference. Given the disorganized nature of NPIs in the low-income countries, the lack of investment available and the skewed nature of domestic production – many thousands of growers producing for household consumption and selling small surpluses into markets dominated by traders – planning is required; and the logical starting point is an ‘action plan’. In reality there are two objectives with planning of this kind. The first is focus upon people and their socio-economic welfare, which can be defined as objective #1:

Objective #1. Socio-economic investment. To improve the productivity of the potato industry and the quality of potatoes grown and sold and, by so-doing, to improve the socio-economic welfare and confidence of the rural potato-growing communities involved.

And, similarly, a second objective that focuses upon NPIs in the context of national investments, but within regional opportunities; that everyone benefits:

Objective #2. Regional agro-industrial investment. To integrate NPIs planning into the longer-term requirements of a regional potato industry that will boost efficiency of farm supplies, production, transport and processing, and enable regional industries to compete successfully in home and export markets for ware potatoes and processed products.

Summary in one paragraph

The productivity of the potato crop has demonstrated a capacity to boost food security in areas where it can be grown satisfactorily. Where the crop is new to people in the low-income countries, support is required with which to introduce it. This will require planning and investment. On the one hand – there are the industrial realities, the increasing role of ware potatoes in local diets as populations expand and cultivated land per capita continues to shrink, dramatic trends in urbanization, and growing demand for processed ware potatoes. And, on the other hand – there is the low productivity of NPIs, lack of public and/or private sector support, failure to adopt good agricultural practices and production of low-quality ware potatoes.

Summary in one sentence

Full exploitation of the potato crop has yet to be realized; it has the potential to dramatically boost food security in low-income countries where it can be grown.

This has been a pro-potato contribution in support of food security in low-income communities. I make no apologies to the current debate in further promoting the future of novel food crops, technologies and opportunities. There are few reasons for looking back.

Peter Steele
Agricultural Engineer
29 May 2013