Saturday, 19 April 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: International Year of the Potato 4


They all laughed when I tried to celebrate International Year of the Potato back in February. But Radio 4 recently had an interesting spot about how the UN's first speciality vegetable year is proving to be more timely than expected, as concerns about world food supplies grow in all quarters

Robin Lustig and the rest of the World Tonight team had a job explaining exactly what's driving the rise in food prices, especially the cost of carb-rich foods like rice. Some blame new rules about biofuels; more than one World Tonight contributor suggested it's just the developing world finally getting into the idea of eating three meals a day

Whatever the factors behind the price hikes, the reality is that people are going hungry. Bangladesh is leading the way by trying to encourage its mainly rice-eating population to switch over to potatoes. Starting, according to Radio 4, with the Bangladesh security forces, who are being ordered to eat potatoes to set a good example.

I wonder whether such a policy could be successful. Potatoes are very nutritious, so why aren't they grown worldwide already? Well there may be more logic to rejecting potatoes than seems at first sight. A cultural preference for one basic foodstuff over another is often not just cultural. 

Economists have spent a lot of time at looking at the way in which marginal developing-world farmers make crop choices; sometimes farmers want to grow the crop most likely to earn a bit of extra cash. But their emergency crop will always be the one least like to fail, like Bitter Cassava - not the one which is rich in protein and calories, but needs more resources. Potatoes need lots and lots of water, as any allotment holder will attest. It's what happens in the really bad years which determines what people end up living off.

Finally, my best potato fact of the day is that Belarus currently lead world potato consumption, at a staggering 745lb per capita every year. You say potato, I say diet.

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