By MONTE HAYES
The Associated Press
Sunday, June 24, 2007; 2:17 PM
AYMARA, Peru -- The humble potato puts on a dazzling display at 13,000 feet above sea level.
Along the frigid spine of the Andes, men and women in bare feet uproot tubers of multiple shapes and colors _ yellow, red, blue, purple, violet, pink with yellow spots, yellow with pink spots; round, oblong, twisted, hooked at the end like walking canes or spiraled like spinning tops.
Their names in Quechua, the ancient language of the Andes, evoke an intimate human connection: "best black woman," "best red woman," "makes the daughter-in-law cry," "like a deer's white tongue," "red shadow" and "like an old bone," to name a few.
Respect for the many variations of potatoes is so profound among Aymara's 650 villagers that it was a natural place for the world's agronomists to produce seeds for a gene bank to preserve their diversity. The cold climate also protects against parasites that infest low-lying potato farms.
In their annual harvest this year, the villagers of Aymara gathered more than 2,000 types of potatoes from a 2 1/2-acre field. Scientists from the Lima-based International Potato Center were there to replenish their bank and provide more seeds to Andean communities.
The center was founded in 1971 as a nonprofit, internationally financed research institution to improve production of potatoes and other root crops in developing nations. It maintains the world's largest collection of tubers _ 4,500 types, including 3,000 from Peru. They are kept as tiny plants in test tubes or in cold chambers.
It's one of some 1,500 gene banks around the world responsible for helping maintain biodiversity of food sources. Their scientists search for plants with certain traits _ such as resistance to cold, drought, insects and diseases _ that can be bred with commercial varieties.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for instance, keeps more than 2,500 apple varieties in Geneva, N.Y., adding to them regularly with new types of wild apples from Kazakhstan's forests, where botanists believe the apple originated.
The potato center's scientists have discovered dozens of varieties of wild potatoes and rescued hundreds of types of domesticated potatoes from oblivion after they had been abandoned by farmers.
Researcher Carlos Ochoa, dubbed the "Indiana Jones" of the potato world for risking encounters with Shining Path rebels and other hazards in remote Andean regions, has alone found more than 80 types of wild potatoes.
The potato originated in the Andes near Lake Titicaca, 12,500 feet above sea level, in what is now Peru, and has been eaten for at least 8,000 years, according to the center. It fed Incan armies as they expanded their empire along the Pacific coast of South America, and Spanish conquistadors brought it to Europe, said William Roca, a geneticist at the center.
The potato became the world's fourth most important food source, after wheat, corn and rice, proving so vital that it provoked a national famine when Ireland's potato crop was wiped out by a blight in the 1840s.
The Lima center, which provides seeds to communities that have lost their potato crops to diseases, freezes or a leftist insurgency, began helping Aymara improve its potato stock in 1990s.
"Our production was not good," said village leader Carlos Hidalgo, who himself grows about 180 brightly colored and oddly shaped varieties. "We said the soil must be tired. We did not realize it was the seeds."
Like other villagers, Hidalgo and his wife each eat an average of two pounds of tubers at every meal. Their four children eat almost as much. That's about 15 times what Americans consume.
Sometimes, she prepares them in a creamy soup, adding boiled eggs, dried lamb meat and crumbled Andean cheese. Usually she just boils them, choosing from dozens of varieties to produce a savory mix of flavors and nutrients. And during the harvest, the village women steam potatoes between layers of lamb in a communal underground pit called a "huatia."
"There are communities that live off only potatoes and people are healthy," said Walter Amoros, another gene researcher. "The potato is not a completely balanced food, but it has the basics for good nutrition."
Aymara's villagers complement their starch-heavy diet by loading up llamas, donkeys and horses and traveling to lower-lying communities, where they trade their prized crop for corn, barley and wheat.
Meanwhile, the women of Aymara rely on their ancestral knowledge of each tuber's virtues as they sort through hundreds of potatoes at harvest time, deciding which to eat, sell, store for seeds or trade to diversify their stock.
"Our parents and grandparents have taught us since we were children," said Susana Hidalgo Avila, a mother of six. "The knowledge is part of our nature."
On the Net:
International Potato Center: http://www.cipotato.org/