Saving the Potato in its Andean Birthplace

John Roach
for National Geographic News
June 10, 2002
The Spanish conquistadors toppled the Inca Empire in the 16th century in
their quest for silver and gold. They returned to Europe with a
different sort of earthly nugget dug from the elaborate terraces
sculpted into the sides of the Andes—the potato.

Potatoes have since spread to nearly 150 countries around the world; hundreds of millions of tons are grown annually, and the potato has become a staple in the world's diet.

But in the Andes, where the potato got its start, market forces, years of drought, and changes in cultural priorities are eroding the status and the diversity of the potato.

Nearly 4,000 different varieties of potato can be found in the Andes, and scientists, economists, and historians are racing to record and preserve the genetic diversity to ensure it does not disappear as suddenly as did the Inca Empire.

Cultural Roots

Scientists believe wild tubers were first domesticated around 8,000 years ago by farmers who lived on the high plains and mountain slopes near Lake Titicaca, which borders modern day Bolivia and Peru. The tubers grew well in the cold, harsh climate and quickly took root as a centerpiece around which life revolved.

The potato "is considered to have been a pillar of Andean culture since domestication," said Merideth Bonierbale, head of crop improvement and genetic resources at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru.

Ritual ceremonies marked by singing, dancing, and drinking still take place throughout the year to ensure a successful harvest. Young men playfully drag young women across potato fields to make the land fertile. Cow horns and flutes are played to cheer on the plants and bring rains.

"There are also ways in which Andean farmers divine the state of the year, which crops will do best, and where it is better to cultivate them: In the high puna or the lower valleys," said Denise Arnold, a researcher at the Institute of Aymara Language and Culture (ILCA) in La Paz, Bolivia.

For example, farmers from the Aymara and Quechua regions of Bolivia and Peru time the planting of their potatoes on the clarity of a constellation of stars known as the Pleiades.

When the constellation is bright and clear, the farmers expect early and abundant rains and a bountiful potato harvest and plant their crops in October. If the constellation is obscured by high cirrus clouds, the farmers anticipate drought and postpone their planting until November or early December.

Ben Orlove, an environmental scientist at the University of California at Davis, reported in the January 6, 2000 issue of the journal Nature that this folkloric forecast is an early predictor of the El Niño weather phenomenon, which causes severe drought during the normal growing season in the Andes.

Potato Diversity

Having divined the correct time of year to plant, an Andean farmer may sow his fields with more than 100 different varieties of potoato, according to the CIP, which holds planting material for about 3,800 varieties of potato grown in the Andes under the auspices of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

"Diversity is conserved on farms and in communities for subsistence use and as a highly valued heritage," said Bonierbale. Most of these varieties never see a market, but are traded amongst highland and lowland communities and given as gifts for weddings and other occasions.

The varieties, which come from eight species of Andean potato, differ from community to community.

Potatoes can be fat, skinny, lumpy or smooth; long, short, round, or square; red, yellow, white or green. There is also a wide range among the different varieties in terms of how they're grown, their nutritional values, amenability to storage, and use properties.

"We believe that diversity provides many types of risk avoidance, but inasmuch as many Andean communities have few other dietary components one can't help think that it also helps fend off boredom," said Bonierbale.

The diversity of potato varieties and the rhythm of life tied to the crop's cultivation, however, is showing the strains of modern life. CIP scientists speculate that years of drought in the Andes coupled with years of violence in Peru, during which many people left the highlands, has likely had a negative impact on potato diversity.

In addition, notes Arnold, young children are not compelled to carry on the traditions of their elders, who select different seeds every three years to ensure greater production, going to great lengths to exchange seeds with neighboring communities and to participate in communal harvests.

"Young people, spoiled at school and persuaded to reject their own cultural values, don't like doing this," she said. "This is another reason for the reduction in varieties and skills of potato management."

The CIP, which aims to increase the production and use of the potato as a sustainable food source in developing countries, is working to ensure that the potato diversity and cultural heritage is not lost forever in the Andes.

For example, the center has delved into its vast seed bank to redistribute to communities the seeds of lost varieties. To prevent farmers from replacing their native varieties with more commercially viable varieties, the center is helping to promote potato chips made from native varieties.

Although the degree to which the commercial varieties are replacing the native varieties in the Andes is not well documented, Bonierbale has reason to believe that the native varieties and the culture they belong to will not disappear entirely.

"The special adaptation of the native potatoes to the highland conditions prevents this to some degree," she said. "They are better adapted to the growing conditions, and better meet traditional tastes and uses, than are bred potatoes, as well as carrying the intrinsic heritage value."

Join the National Geographic Society

Join the world's largest nonprofit scientific and educational organization, and help further our mission to increase and diffuse knowledge of the world and all that is in it. Membership dues are used to fund exploration and educational projects and members also receive 12 annual issues of the Society's official journal, National Geographic. Click here for details of our latest subscription offer: Go>>

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.