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Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Potato
Sarah Rich, 4 Aug 06

benettontater.jpg You talk regularly here about seed banks and their crucial role in preserving agricultural biodiversity. Many of the more common staple crops around the world, such as wheat, corn and potatoes, have had their once-abundant varieties reduced to a precious few which dominate fields and comprise the ingredients in most of our food.

With odds stacked against the survival of rare and heirloom seed crops, a number of individuals and organizations have begun working aggressively for the preservation of our seeds (i.e., our food supply). The people at Benetton Talk, an excellent blog out of Italy run by a super creative international crew, has recently published an extensive feature all about potatoes - history, cultural significance, seed varieties, resource links, and even games and recipes - and it's available in nine different languages!

One of the focal points of the potato piece is the International Potato Center (CIP), "the leading institution for the research and development of tubers and root crops," headquartered in Lima, Peru. They have a seed bank containing 5000 different types of potatoes, many native to the Andean region.

[The CIP is] involved in all kinds of work, from emergency repair innovative projects such as the bio-fortified orange potato, specially designed to combat infant blindness in Sub-Saharan Africa. The research includes traditional crossbreeding techniques alongside the present day much-discussed techniques of genetic engineering. Number one objective: to fight potato diseases.

It's everything you ever wanted to know about potatoes and then some. Of course, their gnocchi recipe doesn't reveal the Italian secret to avoiding rock-hard balls of potato dough -- I guess those Benetton kids have to keep some things secret...

Thanks, Sonia!

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I like the illustration. It looks like a creature from an old D&D Monster Manual.

My grandmother used Idaho spuds for her gnocchi. I assume a similar tater was grown near Genoa.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 4 Aug 06

Heirloom preservation and bioengineering orange potatoes seem to be such diametrically opposed philosophies.

Posted by: Michael K on 6 Aug 06

The CIP is doing some really impressive work on preserving and improving (where possible) the huge number of potato strains.

Having visited the CIP and taken a tour of the facility, it is also inspiring to see that the center endorses and teaches integrated pest management (see also This definitely helps low-income farmers to avoid overuse of pesticides while encouraging, in my opinion, a legacy of knowledge about how different types of potatoes can protext each other.

An interesting statistic quoted by one of the staff at CIP was that Peruvian farmers are, in some cases, familiar with up to 100 different tubers that an grow and flourish in the Andean region.

Posted by: Sean on 8 Aug 06



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