The Potato Problem: Can Scientists Climate-Proof Spud Crops?

As global temperatures rise, farmers that now grow potatoes will struggle to produce them, unless scientists start "climate-proofing" crops now.

Potatoes are starting to show up in my local farmers markets here in New York City. There are purple potatoes and fingerling potatoes and Yukon Golds and plain old Russets. Most of them come from somewhere in upstate New York, where every year more than 25,000 acres are planted with potatoes, the state’s most economically valuable crop. Two decades from now, though, those acres will be dramatically less suitable for growing potatoes, according to the Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security research program. Potatoes don’t grow well in heat, but a freak frost can kill off an entire crop. As global temperatures rise, the farmers that deliver potatoes to my neighborhood will struggle to produce them.

This problem isn’t confined to New York. All around the world, yields of crops like potatoes and beans will drop as their growing conditions change. And preparations to head off hunger and food shortages need to start now, says CCAFS, a Denmark-based collaboration of agriculture scientists, in a new report.

Potatoes do sometimes get a bad rap. Recent research shows that eating them can lead to weight gain: they’re that chock-full of calories. The Department of Agriculture could limit the number of times that school cafeterias serve potatoes, along with starchy vegetables like corn and peas, in a week.

But while the potato’s caloric efficiency is problematic in a country with an obesity problem, it’s a vital support to the world’s population generally. In 2008, the United Nations’ International Year of the Potato, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization found that China produced more potatoes than any other country, while India, Bangladesh, and Russia were among the top overall consumers. Poorer Eastern European countries like Belarus, Ukraine, and Poland dominated per-capita consumption. But Rwanda also made that list, and the U.N. found that per capita demand for potatoes in the developing world was growing.

One potential solution to the continuing need for potatoes in a changing climate involves developing heat-tolerant varieties. CCAFS reports that heat-tolerant potatoes could head off climate-related damage in about two-thirds of the potato crop worldwide. Crop scientists have relatively little experience breeding for those traits, though. Sweet potatoes also do better in hot weather than white potatoes.

Potatoes aren’t the only crop that need to be “climate-proofed,” though. The CCAFS is focusing on the crops that provide the base for most peoples’ diets—bananas and cassava, as well as potatoes and beans. For all those other wonderful vegetables showing up in the market—the last Jersey tomatoes, first winter squashes, apples, and kale, among many others—the race is on to figure out how to save them, as well.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user graibeard

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