Published online: Mar 31, 2008 Alan Harman
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With cereal prices soaring worldwide, an international conference is looking to tap the food potential of the potato as part of the United Nations International Year of the Potato.

The conference in Cusco, Peru, brought together scientists and policy makers to help devise strategies to strengthen the role of what they are calling "the food of the future" in agriculture, the economy and food security, especially in the world's poorest countries.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says the potato, grown in more than 100 countries, is already an integral part of the global food system.

With a record 320 million tons produced in 2007, the potato is the world's number one non-grain food commodity.  It produces more food on less land than maize, wheat or rice.

Consumption is expanding strongly in developing countries, which now account for more than half of the global harvest and where the potato's ease of cultivation and high energy content have made it a valuable cash crop for millions of growers.

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 tons in 2007 - agriculture experts have proposed that potatoes become the major food crop on much of the arable land.

FAO said, however, that 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 change.

During the four-day conference, more than 90 of the world's leading authorities on the potato and development research detailed their research results to help develop strategies for increasing the productivity, profitability and sustainability of potato-based systems for specific kinds of economies.

Participants visited a 29,650-acre Potato Park near Cusco, where grower-researchers have restored to production more than 600 traditional Andean potato varieties, providing plant breeders with the genetic building blocks of future varieties.

One of the results of the conference is the "Cusco Challenge," a year-long dialogue within the global potato science community that will address issues and opportunities in the future development of the crop.