China pins food-security hopes on humble potato

By Lauren Keane
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 31, 2010

JIUTIAOLONG, HUNAN PROVINCE, CHINA -- In the land of rice, China is looking at an unlikely tool for maintaining growth and social harmony: the potato.

The Chinese government has begun ramping up research, production and training related to the humble spud, and hopes are high that it could help alleviate poverty and serve as a bulwark against famine.

The challenge of feeding a growing nation on a shrinking supply of arable land while confronting severe water shortages has long been a major concern here. China has to feed one-fifth of the world's population on one-tenth of its arable land, and the nation's expanding cities are consuming farmland at breakneck speed. China estimates that by 2030, when its population is expected to level off at roughly 1.5 billion, it will need to produce an additional 100 million tons of food each year.

That statistical reality could change eating habits here. Potatoes need less water to grow than rice or wheat, and they yield far more calories per acre. In rice-cultivating regions of southern China, farmers can squeeze a round of fast-growing potatoes into their rice fields in between planting seasons. In some of the poorest parts of arid northern China, potatoes are among the few crops that grow.

"Potatoes have so much potential here," said Xie Kaiyun, a leading potato scientist at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, a government think tank. "Rice, wheat, corn -- we've gone about as far as we can go with them. But not the potato."

Ever keen to seize opportunity, Chinese entrepreneurs are turning potatoes into forms more familiar to Chinese palates: buns, noodles, cakes. They are developing exotic varieties and have even sent seeds into orbit, saying that zero gravity makes them more nutritious and charging astronomical premiums for the seeds' offspring back on Earth.

Potatoes won't replace rice or wheat as mainstays of Chinese cuisine anytime soon, if ever. They are eaten as side dishes, and the government has not yet named them a staple, a distinction that would mean preferential treatment in domestic markets and would carry significant cultural weight.

But they are increasingly seen here as an underutilized resource.

With that in mind, the government in February signed an agreement with the International Potato Center, a research organization, to jointly launch a major potato research center in Beijing. Part of the center's broad mandate will be to develop varieties that grow quickly and dependably in specific regions throughout China. Last month, the State Council announced subsidies for farmers who grow high-yield seed potatoes. And government-funded pilot programs have been expanding in nearly every province, training farmers in innovative methods that raise crop yields and, with them, rural incomes.

Eye on the future

"It's unusual to see a country explicitly name a commodity as an instrument of development," said Pamela K. Anderson, director general of the International Potato Center. "It shows how seriously the Chinese government is taking its commitment to food security."

China has a long-standing policy of food self-sufficiency, growing 95 percent of the grain required to feed its people. The country's sheer size means that a major crop failure or other food emergency here could have international ramifications, overwhelming world food markets with sudden demand. "Were China to need to import a large amount of grain, it would have a very dramatic impact on world food prices," said Anthea Webb, director of World Food Program China.

China produces and consumes more potatoes than any other country. But that's largely because of its huge population. The Chinese lag in per capita terms, eating one-third the amount of potatoes that Russians do and two-thirds the amount Americans eat.

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