Warming to Spur Potato Famine in the Andes?

Eliza Barclay in Coyllurqui, Peru
for National Geographic News
October 1, 2008

When Tito Guillen Rosales was a young boy, his grandfather was a rich man, growing 50 bags of potatoes a year and sharing his surplus with community members who didn't have enough.

"But now his potatoes are covered with worms and plagues and he barely has enough to feed himself," said Rosales, 27, a farmer himself and the mayor of a Peruvian village at 11,000 feet (3,353 meters) in the Cordillera Blanca range of the Andes mountains.

"We are all becoming desperate to find a solution to the changes in the weather and climate that have brought these new pests," Rosales said.

Here in the Andean highlands scientists attribute warmer temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns to global climate change. These shifts are seriously affecting the health of tuber, or root, crops such as the potato.

Late blight, a fungus responsible for the Irish potato famine in the 1800s, appeared for the first time in Coyllurqui sometime in the last 20 years, surprising and flummoxing farmers such as Rosales and his grandfather.

Rising Temperatures

Temperatures in the Andes have increased at a rate nearly two times the global average between 1939 and 1998, according to a 2006 study published by climate researchers in the journal Science.

The study of 268 mountain recording stations found a temperature increase of 0.19 degrees Fahrenheit (0.11 degrees Celsius) per decade, compared with the global average of 0.11 degrees Fahrenheit (0.06 degrees Celsius) a decade.

In much of the Andes, the El Niño Southern Oscillation—atmospheric weather changes tied to shifting Pacific Ocean currents—has intensified the warming of the lowest level of Earth's atmosphere, which has led to higher temperatures at high altitudes.

Long-term warming trends in the Andes could lead to significant increases in insects and pests that consume tuber crops, said Jeffrey Bury, assistant professor of environmental studies at University of California, Santa Cruz. Bury is studying the influence of climate change and glacier recession on individual households in the Andes.

Building a Better Potato

To help farmers combat these new threats, plant breeders are looking to the gene pool of wild species and native varieties in search of traits that can endure climate-related stresses such as drought.

Continued on Next Page >>


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