BLOG: Water Problems for Potato’s Future?
It’s a funny thing, this world we live in. Dinosaurs have come and gone, the Dodo is extinct and the rhinoceros is in danger of being wiped off the face of the earth – all because of a misconception about its horn, writes Andre Erasmus.
So, I hear people ask, what does this have to do with the potato. Well, not too much but there are some similarities, so bear with me.
For starters, the humble potato has been around for at least 10,000 years in places like Bolivia and Peru (although they were not using those national names then) in South America. The earliest archaeologically verified potato tuber remains were uncovered at the coastal site of Ancon in central Peru, dating back to 2,500BC.
Not quite as old as the dinosaurs, I know, but over the years the potato grew in popularity and today remains an essential crop in Europe (especially eastern and central Europe), where per capita production is still the highest in the world.
History shows us that the various dinosaur types were about for 160 million years. But will the history books of the future point to the potato as a global food source for millions of years?
I’m not sure. While the most rapid expansion over the past few decades has occurred in southern and eastern Asia, this is the region facing water supply problems which could impact on future potato production.
As of 2007, China led the world in potato production, and nearly a third of the world’s potatoes were harvested in China and India.
According to Dr Fernando Ezeta, the International Potato Center’s regional leader in the East, Southeast Asia and the Pacific, this region produces more than 80% of the potatoes in developing countries. India, he adds, is the largest potato producer in Southwest Asia and the third most important producer in the world.
But can that be sustained? According to the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), potatoes are taking off in central Asia too and in Uzbekistan, where nearly 80,000 hectares of potatoes were cultivated in 2013 (latest statistics available), potatoes have to be irrigated due to seasonal rain fall (a common occurrence throught Asia).
But potatoes are thirsty and each plan needs around 200 litres before reaching maturity. That’s a lot of water if you look at the number of hectares under irrigation. And, with China producing around 86 million tonnes a year, that’s a massive amount of water that is required.
Both these countries, for example, get less than 50% of the UK’s rainfall a month. So, for this reason, scientists from the IWMI and CIP are running trials using ‘deficit irrigation’ in an effort to save water.
Deficit irrigation is where stages of the plant’s growth are under-irrigated without significant crop yield damage. The trick is, it seems, to ensure under-irrigation is used when the plant can most easily cope.
Results are still incoming but it appears this system can work. Then trouble is, says the IWMI, severe drought happens in Central Asia every five years or so and this could have catastrophic consequences.
So, while the dinosaur and Dodo did not have scientists to look out for them, let’s hope the potato can survive droughts and new irrigation methods. The chips are down.