By Edith M. Lederer, AP
UNITED NATIONS — On World Food Day, the United Nations launched the International Year of the Potato which will spotlight the humble vegetable discovered in Peru that has become a staple in diets around the globe and the world’s fourth largest source of food.
The year-long homage to the potato will take place in 2008 but there was a preview Thursday with a display of several dozen varieties and some samples of potato chips and cooked spuds.
Peru’s Agriculture Minister Ismael Benavides said the International Year of the Potato is especially important for Peruvians because potatoes were discovered in the Andes mountains “and then became a worldwide crop.”
The Spanish conquistadors took potatoes home and farmers in southern Spain started growing them, he said. Over the course of several hundred years, potatoes became popular across Europe and in many countries around the world.
“In most places, potato is eaten by poor people,” said Jacques Diouf, director-general of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. “Through increased productivity, the developing countries have doubled their production in 15 years.”
Diouf said the potato is the fourth largest source of food for the world behind rice, wheat and maize.
He said 350 million tons of potatoes are produced annually, 52 percent in developing countries.
“The potato trade represented US$6 billion in 2005,” he said. “This trade has doubled in volume and has risen four-fold since the mid 1980s. So it’s a growing product in terms of its impact.”
While potato production declined in developed countries by around 1 ercent over the last 20 years, it increased by about 5 percent in developing countries over the same period, Diouf said.
The major source of growth has been in Asia, primarily in China and in India, he said.
Benavides said potato farming employs 600,000 families in Peru, which produces 3.3 million tons of potatoes annually.
The potato remains a major source of income and the main agricultural staple, with Peruvians in the Andes eating 150 kilograms per person while those elsewhere in the country consume an average of 70 kilograms, he said.
“In Peru, we have 1,000 varieties of potato _ potatoes in different colors and different shapes and different tastes,” Benavides said.
In a world looking for exotic food, he said, Peru would like to export some of its potato varieties with different tastes to enhance the cuisine in other countries.