Creating a Taste for a Signature Starch

The Chinese government has put forward the idea of boosting potato production as part of a controversial push to make the tuber a new staple food for the country.

Lu Xiaoping

Creating a Taste for a Signature Starch

A versatile crop, the potato plays multiple roles in China and throughout Asia - as a vegetable, staple food and animal feed. Traditionally, in larger urban areas, the potato has been considered a vegetable, but a staple food in remote and poor areas where there is a shortage of cereals. In January this year, however, the Chinese government put forward the idea of boosting the production of potato so that it could be a staple, immediately sparking animated controversy among the public.

China’s food security is not only an agricultural and economic issue, but also a sensitive political one and a matter of great concern for the wider international community. Over the past 30 years, China has seen a sustained increase in its food output exceeding 600 million tons for the second consecutive year in 2014, or about a quarter of the world’s total. Nevertheless, at a time when China’s food imports are still growing, the news that the government planned to treat the potato as a staple food was bound to raise eyebrows both at home and abroad in light of the country’s food security situation.

What then truly lies behind the government’s new stand on potatoes? The authors believe the reasons are fivefold.

First, the government is drawing on international practice. Global potato acreage has been about 20 million ha in recent years with an annual output of about 370 million tons in 2013. The potato is a staple food for two-thirds of the world’s population and its direct consumption ranks third among all food crops, after rice and wheat. Per capita potato consumption is especially high in Europe and North America, where the potato has had a major role in the economic and cultural history of these two continents.

Secondly, the potato boasts richer nutrition than cereals. Abundant in protein, amino acids and vitamins and low in fat, cooked properly, potatoes can boost human health without causing obesity and is an important health food recommended by the World Health Organization. Now that subsistence is no longer a problem in China, the dietary structure needs to be upgraded. The goal of having enough food is giving way to having better food. As such, enhancing potato production and consumption can be a strategic choice for the country.

Third, the potato has enormous yield potential. Unlike cereal yields, the average potato yield in China is 20 percent below the global average because production technology in the country is at lower levels. That is to say, even with the current areas of arable land and cereal crops, potato yield can still achieve remarkable growth through policy guidance and technological advancement. Overall food supply could be improved as a result, easing the strain on food supply caused by population growth and economic development.

Fourth, potato as a substitution crop in some places can help protect the environment, especially by reducing the use of chemical inputs and conserving water resources. While increasing food supply and farmers’ income, we need to be mindful of environmental protection and resource conservation as well. Promoting potato consumption could restructure the crop farming sector with benefits including potatoes’ drought tolerance, resilience, adaptability and ability to survive marginal climate and geographical conditions.

Last but not least, consuming the potato as a staple can push forward the development of secondary and tertiary industries. Compared with other food crops, the potato is prone to losses during storage and transportation. That’s why it is necessary to develop processing right where the potatoes are grown, which forces processing to be localized. As the potato is mostly planted in central and western China, boosting potato farming can increase farmers’ incomes while the creation of the local potato processing sector could accelerate the pace of industrialization and urbanization.

As with many things, the government aim of making the potato a staple is easier said than done.

Despite the government’s goal of consuming over 50 percent of the potato as a staple by 2020, three bottlenecks must be overcome before the goal can be reached. First of all, whether potato as a staple will be accepted by consumers is open to question. Based on past experience, it seems difficult to increase the total potato production because of lacking consumption requirements. So now the government encourages technical innovation, making it as a staple; such consumption increase can be a good way to pull the production upwards.

People in China and the rest of Asia have long formed the habit of consuming rice and wheat as staple. It remains to be seen if they could change their dietary preference and adapt to the ways the potato is cooked as a staple. Second, current potato processing technology is not adequate enough to roll out a wide range of potato-derived staple food products. Those few products that are currently available are too costly to appeal to low-income groups. A final bottleneck lies with the producer. To expand the consumption of the potato as a staple, both the potato yield and total output have to be improved. But there is no subsidy and pricing policies for potato farmers as there are for farmers that grow cereals, which means that the producer is fully exposed to price fluctuations. That will surely hurt producers’ initiative and motivation for expanding potato production.

The small potato has been given a larger mission under China’s new economic backdrop. But the benefits outweigh the risks no matter how you look at it. A more pragmatic solution would be making the sweet potato a staple, as well.

The International Potato Center (CIP) has been working in China for over 30 years, during which time the country’s potato production has more than doubled while yields of both potato and sweet potato production have substantially increased. Given the food and nutrition security issues mentioned above, CIP is ready again, establishing a new regional centre, CIP-China Center for Asia Pacific (CCCAP), to take a step forward in its goal of helping improve the lives and well-being of millions of people.

The market’s need and the direction of government policy are both clear. Now the challenge is making it happen.


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