China creates disease-resistant potatoes to promote crop as staple food

By Ding Gang and Wang Hailin Published: 2015-7-13 9:44:20

There are over 4,000 varieties of potato, mostly found in Andean highlands of South America. In Lima, Peru, the Centro Internacional de la Papa (CIP), International Potato Center in English, has stored most types of potato in its genome resource bank. We paid a visit to the center recently. A giant portrait hung in the lobby when we went through the front door, showing man wearing a Peruvian traditional garment holding a string of plump healthy potatoes in one hand and in the other a string of “sick” potatoes. Lanatta, a staff member of the center, told us that this is their emblem, which signifies that the institution can cure sick potatoes and ensure a good harvest.

Potato specimens preserved in 7 degrees Celsius

The CIP was founded in 1971. As the most authoritative potato research organization, it has branches in Asia, Africa and the rest of the Americas. It has the biggest resource pool of potato seeds and genomes, which makes it one of the major bases for potato research in the world. The CIP now preserves more than half of all known varieties of potato and stores more than 20,000 specimens of rhizome plants including potatoes and sweet potatoes. These specimens have been widely used for teaching and scientific research.

We were led by Anna, director of the genome bank, into the storage room dressed in white protective suits. When the hefty gate was opened, we couldn’t help shuddering because of the icy air. There are about 8,000 potato specimens preserved in a 15 square-meter room, in which the temperature was kept at around 7 degrees Celsius at all times. The length of tube used to hold specimens is about 15 centimeters. Anna said low temperatures can retard the growth of potatoes. Usually, it takes two weeks for a potato seedling to grow 2 centimeters. But in the environment of the storage room, it will take about two years to grow out of the tube. This way, the potatoes can be preserved for a long.

When potatoes need to be shipped to other countries for further nurturing, researchers transfer specimens from the 7-degree-Celsius room to a 20-degree-Celsius room, where they can develop more rapidly. Anna said that if research centers in other countries ask for potato specimens or other rhizome plants, they will meet their requirements for free. 

Potatoes are popular around the globe because they are highly drought-tolerant, have abundant yield, adapts readily to diverse climates and geographical conditions and is nutritious in many ways. However, potatoes are not easy to store and are poor at resisting pests and diseases. One of the CIP’s missions is to cultivate and develop disease- and pest-resistant new species.

A Chinese potato

At the CIP, there is a potato called “Cooperation-88,” which was developed through a joint program between the CIP and Chinese scientists. More than 20 years ago, based on the potatoes provided by the CIP, the Chinese scientists bred a new type which can better resist late-onset diseases. This new type has been widely grown in Southwestern China and has been well received by local farmers. It has even been exported to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. In 2014, the CIP officially brought this type into their genome bank. “Cooperation-88” has become China’s first well-nurtured type of potato that has been exported to the rest of the world.

Lu Xiaoping, head of CIP-China Center for Asia Pacific, told us that the CIP signed a pact for cooperation with China in 1985. In 2010, the center made an agreement with the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture to set up the CIP-China Center for Asia Pacific. The China-based center intends to promote the improved varieties from China’s peripheries.

Lu said his branch will be an institution committed to comprehensive research and study, including protection, breeding, and cultivation of species resources and post-harvest processing. It is anticipated that the center will be officially set up in Yanqing District, Beijing later this year, when the World Potato Congress will also be convened. Joel Ranck, director of media affairs at the CIP told us that China has been increasingly advanced in potato research and development by depending on excellent teams. China has a vast expanse of land, Ranck said, and it has natural conditions to promote potatoes across the country. China’s potato yield tops the world, and it will play an important role in promoting and researching potatoes.

Potatoes help relieve starvation

On the Andean highlands which are 3,200-4,200 meters high above sea level, potatoes with white, yellow, red and purple skins were first farmed by local peasants. From 8000 to 5000 BC, the aborigines started to plant and eat potatoes. After Christopher Columbus discovered the American continent and connected the old world with the new, potatoes were ready to be spread to the entire globe. In 1536, Spanish colonists discovered the potato in Peru and shipped some to Europe. When it came to the end of the 18th century, potato was served on most Europeans’ dining tables. European experts in potato study generally believe that from 1700 to 1900, the introduction of the potato increased Europe’s population by at least 25 percent, adding impetus to the urbanization of the continent. 2005 marked a turning point of the global potato production. According to statistics, for the first time in recorded history, developing countries surpassed developed countries in potato production. In 2012, China, India and Russia became top three countries in potato production.

Ranck told the Global Times that the world population is expected to reach 20 billion in the middle of the 21st century, which means there may be a grave shortage of food in the next 30 years, especially in developing countries and the less developed countries which are still fighting starvation. However, human beings are able to address this problem. A middle-sized potato can provide half of the amount of vitamin C needed for an adult. Now, the per capita consumption of potato in most developing countries is only a quarter of that in Europe. In China, per capita consumption of is about 40 kilograms every year, less than half of that of Europeans. Increasing potato consumption will be conducive to addressing food problems.

In 2015, China launched a strategy to make potato a staple food, processing potatoes into steamed buns and noodles. Potatoes will stand side by side with rice, wheat and corn as China’s new staple food. This strategy has also captured the attention of the international community. “It is very unusual that a state can specify a commodity as a tool of development,” said Pamela Anderson, an expert at the CIP. “This shows the Chinese government pays serious attention to food safety.” Anderson added.

Posted in: Viewpoint

blog comments powered by Disqus