Sunday 29 January 2012

20 Challenges and Opportunities for Potatoes

Another benefit to attending Potato Day is the talks by specialists that are run throughout the day. I attended the '20 challenges and opportunities for potatoes' by Alan Wilson. It was a really interesting talk, and I learned quite a bit I didn't know about potato growing in the UK, including some surprising facts. Here is a brief overview of the 20 challenges/opportunities Alan presented.

1. Decline of fresh potatoes: apparently in 1998 (UK) 71.8% of potatoes eaten were fresh, i.e. whether home grown or from supermarkets, with the remaining percentage being consumed as processed potatoes, i.e. hot or frozen chips. In 2010 only 38.9% of potatoes are consumed fresh. That's a massive decrease and says a lot about our relationship with food, as well as the impacts on our health.

2. Pasta vs. Potato: following on from point 1, we are also eating much more pasta and rice as a staple, instead of potatoes.With pressures on peoples time, these are perceived as being clean, easier and quicker to cook.

3. Value of food crop: you can eat less potatoes per meal to gain the same value in nutrition (see 4. below), compared to what you would need when eating pasta. Also, the amount of land needed to grow potatoes is much less than you need to gain the equivalent value from cereals.

4. Nutrition: potatoes are very nutritious and contain a lot of vitamin C. In the past, potatoes gave people their winter access to vitamin C, whereas now you can by orange juice etc all year round. They are also a good source of vitamin B6 and potassium and have no cholesterol. (The Potato Council has a useful page listing the healthy qualities of potatoes.) Furthermore, they are quite low in calories too.

5. Gardeners: gardeners have quite a few challenges in order to grow potatoes. From the lack of allotments available to the smaller size of gardens that come with new housing. However, gardeners are also the champions of potatoes, potatoes are very popular with gardners and they grow lots of different varieties which is good for diversity and food security.

6. Organic vs. Non-Organic: there is lots of debate over 'what is organic', but what is certain is that organic methods such as careful rotation and diversity in crops is the way forward and conventional growing needs to use organic principles if we are to maintain the crop.

7. GM: will it really solve the world's food problems? The irony is that GM claims to be 'blight resistant' yet there are lots of non-GM potatoes that already have this important feature. And we need to fix bad farming (i.e. monocultures), which GM won't do.

8. Water: a lot of pressure on this resource and it will get worse in future with the impacts of climate change. Potatoes need water, so growers need to be smarter about using this precious resource in the most effective and sustainable way.

9. Soil: the most important element. Fertiliser only goes so far, we need to build up the nutrients in our soil with compost and organic matter.

10. Biodiversity: unlike big farms, gardeners grow more than just one variety, use rotation methods and add nutrients to the soil via compost and green manures.

11. Nutrition for potatoes: whilst potatoes can get some nutrition from legumes (so a winter crop of green manures before planting potatoes the following spring has some use), water and potassium more important. Again, building the soil very important.

12. Wastage: gardeners consume 95% of their crop, the remaining 5% lost to pests (i.e. slugs), greening or a fork through them when digging up. 50% of crops are wasted by conventional farming. I'll say that again, 50%. So gardeners growing potatoes lowers the carbon footprint of agriculture.

13. Lifestyle: we only spend 8% of our disposable income on food. It was 25% in the 1950's. We have less time for growing and eating and are quite detached from our food system.

14. Perception and knowledge: people think potatoes are fattening - they are not! There is a perception that because they come from the soil, they are somehow dirty. Some even perceive potatoes as an old persons food. Clearly a lot of education is needed around people's knowledge of potatoes.

15. Varieties, pests and disease: more varieties are available with different levels of resistance to pests and diseases, yet only 1.5% of 21 old varieties* available are grown by industry.  *these are any varieties that go back more than 50 years.

16. Culinary knowledge: with 1400 varieties around, there is a lack of knowledge about how different potatoes have different culinary uses. TV chefs just use 'potatoes', not telling you what varieties they use.

17. Varieties: over 1400 varieties of potatoes available to the UK potato industry. Awareness of the different varieties available is increasing.

18. Quality: the importance of taste. Being aware that digging up potatoes at different times will change how they taste. For example, a salad potato (usually a 'new' potato) won't taste good as a salad potato if left in the ground too long.

19. Seasonality: we think of potato growing season as late March to October, but actually some varieties can be grown all year round (i.e. Rocket).

20. Values: the future of potatoes is in our hands. Do we value them as a crop? Do we understand they are good for you? Do we value what type of potato is grown for what culinary purpose?

I found many of these interesting and some shocking. Eating fresh potatoes is so normal to my circle of friends and I that it never occurred to me that a lot of people in the UK only eat processed potatoes. I was kind of aware that conventional farming throws away a lot of produce (because the supermarkets won't accept them), but 50% wastage is a bloody disgrace.

I have lots of other concerns about GM in general that Alan didn't raise. For example, who owns seed? I think seeds, including potato seeds, should be part of the global commons and not owned by multinationals for profit. And there is the health and environmental impacts of GM -  all those chemicals being sprayed onto GM crops cannot be healthy for neither people or the environment. This isn't a criticism of Alan (he only had 45 minutes and a lot to get through!), rather I want to remind people there are lots of questions about GM that should be considered.

As we are becoming more food aware, hopefully culinary knowledge of potatoes will develop. Some potatoes that are good for mashing are useless for boiling. And some that are good for roasting are bad mashers, etc. I choose the potatoes I grow very carefully to ensure that I have a range that cover the types of cooking I like. Hence in my list of pototoes, I included comments such as whether a particular potato was a good masher or salad potato, etc.

There was also a lot of hope in Alan's talk. Gardeners and communities are leading the way growing many varieties of potatoes (and other fruit and vegetables), which helps not only keep these different varieties available, but means that the gene pool for potatoes remains wide. Whether it is potatoes growing in different conditions (cooler or warmer environments for example), or for different qualities (bakers, mashers, salad potatoes), the fact that gardeners want and grow lots of varieties of potatoes, can only be a good thing for potatoes overall.

I purchased Alan's new book The People's Potatoes, which as well as giving useful information about growing potatoes, includes a synopsis of 400 varieties available in the UK. There is also a section with detailed information on his personal top 100. I've already started reading it and on first impression, it's a really useful reference for any potato grower and lover. For example, I knew about pests and diseases such as slugs, blight and scab, but from the book I also learned that aphids are a big problem for potatoes, as they are a key source for carrying diseases. And there is a useful bibliography with links and further reading at the back, which will be of use to those of us who are extra keen on learning more about growing potatoes.

For a 45-minute talk I learned quite a lot, and along with the other talks and cooking demonstrations (which I was unable to attend), it was another reason why going to Potato Day at Ryton is such a great experience. And yet another reason why I will return to Potato Day in 2013.  ;-)