Healthy eating and revaluation of original foods are hot issues nowadays. Stef de Haan, agroecologist at the CIP International Potato Centre in Lima, is enthusiastic about the native potato varieties he discovers and examines in Peru, cradle of the potato. A lot of mystery and tradition surrounds these native varieties. But can this ‘real gold’ of the Inca’s really help us get healthier?

words Stef de Haan   |   photography Jim Richardson


Peru’s potato power

Peru, a country that has cultivated potatoes for nearly 7,000 years, boasts on having over 4,500 varieties of the world’s favourite vegetable, the potato. This tuber comes in all shapes, colours and sizes. They aren’t just pretty to look at, but also hold up to 5 times as much vitamins, carotene, zinc and antioxidants as regular potatoes! The remarkable traits of these native potatoes are a valuable source in developing more resilient and nutritious spuds. In fact they open up a whole new world of possibilities in fighting poverty, malnutrition and securing the world’s food supply. This is exactly what CIP International Potato Centre is striving for.

Fighting world food problems

‘At CIP we preserve potato varieties, sustain their genetic recourses so we can save them for the future and use them to develop stronger varieties’, says Stef de Haan. ‘Our agricultural and scientific research is aimed to improve the life of those living in less fortunate circumstances.’ A few of the programs CIP works on:

  • In Africa night blindness often occurs. CIP introduced an orange-fleshed sweet potato with a high level of carotene in Africa to help fight this.
  • In Asia CIP is working on the development of an agile potato that matures quickly. Farmers can grow this potato in the winter in between two rice harvests and profit from an additional source of income.
  • In coastal and mountain regions climate changes threaten agriculture. The small farmers that live there often depend on their crops for survival. CIP helps them to become more resilient to weather trends and shocks.

Old knowledge and new science

It seems a shame the world only knows a handful of potato varieties, while there is so much potential in this broad range of native varieties. ‘It takes a lot of effort to find them, Stef de Haan explains. ‘The farmers that grow them live in areas that are remote and difficult to access. When we find ‘new’ varieties, we work with the farmers to obtain their knowledge on the variety, its traits and their cultivation methods. We discovered the women traditionally know a lot about the origin of the varieties, their nutritional benefits and medicinal use. Finally we thoroughly examine the potatoes in our lab to discover the things that don’t meet the eye. When we decide to crossbreed them, it takes another 8 to 10 years to get results. So it is fair to say the whole process takes time. But I am convinced old knowledge an new science hold great potential when it comes to crop improvement and the future human adaptation to changing environments and deceases.’

Stef de Haan (on the left) in Peru
Stef de Haan (on the left) in Peru

HZPC & benefit sharing

HZPC supports CIP on a program for benefit sharing. Benefit sharing means the farmers who grow native crops, benefit more from their efforts. If it wasn’t for these farmers we couldn’t enjoy things like potatoes, coffee or cacao. They gave origin to our food. However, in the case of the potato, most of these farmers live in poverty and work under harsh conditions.

Governments recognized that custodian farmers play an important role in preserving native species and biodiversity. They decided those farmers deserve more recognition for their work and established an international benefit sharing fund. However not all of the 800,000 small Andean farmers in Peru that can qualify for the fund, necessarily have much contact with the outside world and many are illiterate.

HZPC and CIP, together with national partners in Peru (Grupo Yanapai, INIA, SPDA) have started to work on a novel model to practically implement benefit sharing with custodian farmers. The consortium of institutions wants to empower the farmers to organize and represent themselves, so they benefit maximum from a start-up fund made available by HZPC. To give this shape they helped them to initiate an association, which is now running a pilot with 43 custodian farmers. The farmers recently spend their first money on agricultural inputs, education and health care.

Over het CIP

  • Founded in 1971 as a root and tuber research-for-development institution delivering sustainable solutions to pressing world problems of hunger, poverty, and the degradation of natural resources.
  • CIP is a global center with headquarters in Lima, Peru and offices in 20 developing countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America.
  • Has the world’s biggest genebank that holds over 80% of the world’s native potato and sweetpotato cultivars.
  • Is a member of CGIAR, an international organization made up of 15 centers engaged in research for a food secure future.