Global potato conference in Cusco

25-28 March

The historic city of Cusco, Peru, at the heart of the potato's Andean centre of origin, hosts in March one of the major events of the International Year: a landmark global conference on "Potato science for the poor" sponsored by the International Potato Center (CIP) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The conference aims at tapping the potato's potential to play an even stronger role in agriculture, the economy and food security, especially in the world's poorest countries.

Potato's prospects are bright. In Peru itself, food price inflation has spurred government efforts to reduce costly wheat imports by encouraging people to eat bread that includes potato flour. In China, the world's biggest potato producer (72 million tonnes in 2007), agriculture experts have proposed that potato become the major food crop on much of the country's arable land.

However, extending the benefits of potato production depends on improvements in the quality of planting material, farming systems that make more sustainable use of natural resources, and potato varieties that have reduced water needs, greater resistance to pests and diseases, and resilience in the face of climate changes.

Productivity, profitability, sustainability. During the four-day conference, more than 90 of the world's leading authorities on the potato and on research-for-development will share insights and recent research results to develop strategies for increasing the productivity, profitability and sustainability of potato-based systems.

They will address potato development challenges facing three distinct economic typologies - outlined in the World Bank's World Development Report 2008 - in the developing world. The first is agriculture-based countries, mainly in Africa, where the poor are concentrated in rural areas and produce potato for home consumption first and then sale to local markets. CIP and FAO say a priority for these countries is research and technology sharing to support a "sustainable productivity revolution" and to link producers to domestic and regional commodity markets.

Different strategies are needed for the “transforming economies” of Africa, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, where potato systems are characterized by very small, intensively managed farms and by a widening rural-urban poverty gap. The challenge for those countries is to sustainably manage intensive systems, increasing productivity while minimizing health and environmental risks.

In the urbanized economies typical of Latin America, Central Asia and Eastern Europe, where agriculture plays a reduced role, the challenge is to ensure the social and environmental sustainability of potato-based systems and link small potato producers to new food markets.

Farmer-researchers. Conference participants will visit a 12,000 ha "Potato Park" near Cusco, where farmer-researchers have restored to production over 600 traditional Andean potato varieties, providing the genetic building blocks of future varieties.

One of the expected outputs of the conference has been dubbed the "Cusco Challenge", a year-long dialogue within the global potato science community that will address issues and opportunities in the future development of this essential crop.