The potato has a 12,000-year-old history but an even brighter future as a crop that is set to replace rice as a staple in the Asian rice-consuming countries. It requires less amount of water compared to other basic food products, without compromising the nutrition value. Potato, therefore, is increasingly being promoted, in the genetically modified organism-free European Union (EU), as the foremost solution for meeting the increased food demand for an estimated 6 billion world population by 2030.
Dutch researchers from the famous Wageningen University — dedicated to bio-based economy in food, feed and chemicals produced from renewable resources — told a visiting press delegation that if prepared in a healthy manner and consumed in the right proportion (balanced reduction of calories), consumers can benefit from the many nutrients and dietary fibres in the tuber.
The advantages of potato over other staples were discussed at the “Potato Potential Conference”, which was followed by a vibrant food exposition organised by the Enterprise Europe Network and Food Valley that facilitated networking of global companies in the potato business. The EU’s focus is now on Eastern Europe and China for processed food markets. The visiting journalists were told that China is already moving towards experiments with replacing rice with potato.
The diverse advantage of potato — the fourth largest consumed food in the world after maize, rice and wheat — is emphasised by studies that have shown potato containing less calories than pasta, rice and bread. The tuber consumes about 30 per cent less water to grow than rice and is being projected as a crop that can contribute to weight loss “if prepared and consumed healthily.”
Researchers and scientists are working towards facilitating higher and sustainable crop yields per hectare that are free from disease and pests.
With an annual export of about eight million tonnes of certified seed potato, the tuber is not only a staple food for the Dutch, but a major contributor to the economy. Netherlands, known for its success in water management, is the world’s third largest agriculture exporter, second biggest agri-food exporter and third largest potato exporter.
The Dutch potato sector is constantly breeding, growing and selecting new varieties based on market demands. Simultaneously, processing companies (like Aviko) continuously experiment with the quality and flavour of their potato fries and how to get the best by-products from wastes like potato peels and starch-rich waste water.
The potato crop is normally hit by the most common late blight disease (caused by phytophthora infestans), scab, rhizoctonia, canker, blackleg, fusarium and viral diseases. All research at Wageningen is in partnership with private and multinational companies and, at the same time, with medical institutions so as to not lose sight of the nutritional and safety aspects in food products.
The EU has laid down stringent standards for member countries for seeds and seed potatoes to coordinate with the demand and supply. The visiting press team saw the high standards maintained by the Netherlands government at the NAK, the Dutch General Inspection Service for Agriculture Seeds and Seed Potatoes at Emmeloord. Technical Coordinator of Inspections Jaap Haak explained that every seed potato that comes out of a farm must have quality certification from the NAK.
The Plant Protection Service of the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, too, monitors the quality of seed potatoes, especially on phytosanitary issues of health, varietal purity and physiological conditions. Interestingly, the NAK has on its board representatives of farmers, breeders, propagators and traders in a set-up in which the farm sector formulates its own standards in line with international measures. The costs are shared by farmers and traders.
Mr. Haak said that only produce from fields free of nematodes are accepted for inspection. Farmers must also specify the sources of the seed, its variety and class. Inspections are visual, in the labs as well as on-field. As the grower prepares the lots for delivery, NAK inspectors visit the plot at least once a day to ensure that only the approved lots are being delivered.
Under its Participatory Potato Breeding programme, the Wageningen University collaborates with farmers in producing required varieties. Niek Vos, an organic farmer-breeder, took 12 years to develop the Bionca variety, by crossing small South Holland potatoes with blight-resistant potatoes from Mexico. His is a white fleshy potato variety, resistant to late blight disease, and he sells it under his own brand name — Niek’s Witte (Nieck’s White).
“I turned to organic farming because when I was in conventional farming, my neighbours complained that the late blight afflicting their crop was coming from my field. I thought it was better to grow a variety that has no blight and now I have my own Niek’s Witte,” he said.
He also has an on-farm cold storage of 100 tonnes capacity. He uses cow manure on his well-managed and clean farm and follows the good practice of keeping his 70-hectare field free after every two years to maintain soil health.
The organic potato is three to four times more expensive than the conventional one, but Mr. Vos believes this market is growing.
Mr. Vos has an India connection. After finishing studies, his daughter Michiel travelled to Puducherry “to think out” what she wanted to do in life. She decided to return to Netherlands and join her father in growing potatoes — such is the power of the tuber in Netherlands.