The Andes Mountains are home to a diverse range of plant and animal species. Settled in the heart of these mountains near Cusco, Peru, lies Parque de la Papa (Potato Park), a park dedicated to preserving this biodiversity and protecting one of the world’s most widely-recognized crops—the potato.
Parque de la Papa is home to over 1,100 varieties of potatoes (Photo credit: Agricultural Research Service)
The potato is believed to have originated in the southern Peruvian Andes, where indigenous groups used 20 native varieties to domesticate the crop and create some 2,300 new varieties. The park itself is home to more than 700 local varieties, over 400 varieties repatriated from the International Potato Center, and 5 wild varieties.
Parque de la Papa is made up of more than 6,000 people who live in six communities. These six communities of native people used to be separate from one another, but now they are united in an effort to preserve and recover the biodiversity of their potatoes. Projects within the park are administered by the communities as a group, which ensures community participation and sharing of benefits. Legally, the communities comprise part of the Association of Communities of Potato Park, the administrative body of the park. This association forms the park’s internal organization and carries out important functions such as creating and promoting regulations and sustainable practices that protect that park’s character, environment, and natural resources.
Much of the way Andean natives treat their crops is influenced by their rich social and cultural beliefs. According to the Andean world view, one cultural and spiritual concept, Pachamama, unites everything in nature, including human beings, plants, earth, water, and valleys. Similar to the concept of Mother Earth, Pachamama emphasizes the sacred relationship with one’s surroundings and is celebrated regularly through year-round festivities. Adherence to this concept, in conjunction with the three core Andean Principles of Balance, Reciprocity, and Duality, helps maintain equity and preserve biodiversity within the park.
Whether a bowl of rice or a piece of bread, millions of poor people around the world eat large amounts of staple foods day in and day out. Now, a new technology promises to make such foods more nutritious.
HarvestPlus expects that millions of Rwandans will be eating these beans within the decade. This should greatly reduce the iron deficiency that leaves at least half of Rwanda’s preschoolers physically and mentally impaired. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
While staple foods provide calories, they simply do not provide enough micronutrients such as iron, zinc, or vitamin A that are required for good health. People who do not get enough micronutrients suffer from a ‘hidden hunger,’ often with serious consequences.
Without zinc, an eight-year-old girl may have the stature of a five year old. A young boy not getting enough vitamin A—an amount easily provided daily by a small, orange sweet potato—could go blind, permanently. It is these precious nutrients, needed in only minute amounts, that can make—or break—a young person’s life and haunt them through adulthood.
The ideal solution is, of course, a more diverse diet, but that is beyond the reach of millions of poor people often living in remote rural areas. This is where more nutritious staple foods can help; scientists are breeding new varieties of staple food crops that are richer in micronutrients through a process called biofortification. They scour seed banks to find seeds that contain the desired nutrients and then breed these into popular varieties using conventional methods.
The first crop out of the door was sweet potato. White or yellow sweet potato is traditionally eaten in Africa. Working with partners, HarvestPlus, a global agricultural research program, successfully released in Uganda and Mozambique an orange sweet potato that is far richer in vitamin A. Children and women, who are most susceptible to vitamin A deficiency, are eating substantially more of this locally grown orange sweet potato.
“Me and my family are experiencing better health with fewer visits to the local clinic since we incorporated the orange sweet potato into our diet,” a local farmer in Uganda recently attested to visiting HarvestPlus staff.
HarvestPlus and its partners will soon release two other nutritious staple foods in Africa: beans with more iron and a vitamin A-rich maize.
Rwanda, a country of lush rolling hills, claims bean as its staple. “Beans are the bread of Rwanda,” says Jean D’Amour Manirere, HarvestPlus Country Manager for beans. Manirere shepherds new iron-rich bean varieties through field trials and ultimately to farmers and consumers. HarvestPlus is conducting a feeding trial in Rwanda to demonstrate that these new beans do reduce iron deficiency. With this seal of approval, local partners will be able to get these beans out to smallholder farming communities throughout Rwanda. Farmers will be able to save and share seed to grow, year after year.
HarvestPlus expects that millions of Rwandans will be eating these beans within the decade. This should greatly reduce the iron deficiency that leaves at least half of Rwanda’s preschoolers physically and mentally impaired. Once beans have taken root in Rwanda, neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo and several other African countries where people regularly eat beans will also benefit.
In Zambia, a different crop that has become synonymous with African diets is about to become more nutritious: maize. These new varieties are a distinct orange color due to their vitamin A content. “First, we want to confirm that these varieties perform well in the field,” says Eliab Simpungwe, HarvestPlus Country Manager for maize. “We are already working with two seed companies to test this maize in the field.” HarvestPlus partners will begin by first releasing these varieties in provinces where rural households grow maize and where the incidence of vitamin A deficiency among women and children is high.
How do people react to these new ‘orange’ crops? We have found that when you explain their nutritional benefits, people are willing to include these foods in their diet. A HarvestPlus study in Zambia found that there is no stigma attached to orange maize, so the color should not be an issue. Coupled with its more nutritious profile and good field performance, orange maize should easily carve out a niche in farmers’ fields—and the Zambian diet. Once proven in Zambia, orange maize will be adapted to numerous other countries not just in Africa where maize is a popular food.
Biofortification may ultimately prove to be most successful because it uses food crops that rural communities are already growing and eating to deliver better nutrition. It also has built-in sustainability. Once scientists have bred the high-nutrient into the crop, it stays there—nourishing many generations to come.
HarvestPlus is a Challenge Program of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). It is based at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
Yassir Islam is Senior Communications Specialist at HarvestPlus.