Humble spud worthy of praise, protection

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 October, 2007, 12:00am

The UN's recent designation of 2008 as the International Year of the Potato would, at best, seem trivial. Of all the worthy causes that need highlighting, putting a tuber centre-stage surely makes light of the occasion.

While every day of the year has been set aside by one organisation or the other to promote a particular cause, the UN's international years are few and far between. They should be reserved for the significant, not vegetables.

Such thinking is flawed, not to mention forgetful. Just three years ago, we celebrated the international year of rice, the most widely consumed staple food. Given the importance it plays in our lives and the pressures being placed on its production, this was indeed a fitting decision.

Potatoes are no less significant. Honouring the starchy foodstuff staple in so prominent a way is not only welcome, but necessary.

Potatoes are the fourth most eaten food in the world after rice, wheat and corn. Rich in vitamin C and potassium, the vegetable is also an important source of nutrition.

For many poor people, potatoes are essential for survival. A total of 52 per cent of world production is in developing countries - China and India account for one-third of the global amount.

But with the world's population expected to grow by 100 million a year over the next two decades and global warming and environmental degradation affecting food production, people in developing countries face hunger. Among the most vulnerable crops are potatoes.

There is even more reason to hold the humble spud up for celebration and scrutiny - little research is going into fighting the diseases ravaging some crops. With so many people depending on potatoes for their food or livelihoods, ensuring such work is funded and carried out is essential.

History clearly shows why. Failure of the potato crop in Ireland in the mid-1800s from the disease blight caused a four-year famine. The then agriculture-based economy collapsed and the population halved to four million through deaths from hunger and emigration.

Letting the world know through a year of promotion of the stresses and strains the potato is facing should avert another disaster. Those of us with a predilection for them will learn more about how they came to be on our tables - and we may just spot a recipe we were not aware of that is worth trying out.