You have tried to use a one-time login link that has expired. Please request a new one using the form below.

The truth about potatoes

For as long as anyone can remember, the potato has been a stalwart ingredient in the British diet. Back in the Second World War, it was considered such an essential, healthy food that potato growing became a key plank in the British strategy for survival. It figured prominently in the Ministry of Food’s Dig For Victory campaign, which enlisted a cartoon superhero, Potato Pete, to encourage the nation to grow and eat more potatoes, successfully doubling the acreage planted. But during peacetime, our fondness for the spud has never abated – only the Portuguese and the Irish eat more than we do – and we have treated it as an unremarkable, generic staple, often buying by size without having a clue about variety. The potato has played second fiddle to other ingredients – a mash to go with stew, chips to partner fish. We have left it to the French to devise recipes, like gratin dauphinoise, that celebrate the tuber in its own right.

Health food crop
On the culinary front, the potato has been eclipsed by what were seen as more exciting foreign carbohydrates like pasta, couscous and rice. On the health front, we were told that because it is so starchy, the potato didn’t count towards the goal of five portions of fruit and veg a day. A thumbs-down from the Atkins and low glycaemic index (GI) diet plans didn’t do much for its image either.
But now the potato is being rediscovered, big time. The United Nations dubbed 2008 the International Year of the Potato, hailing it as the “food of the future… a nutritious crop that could feed an increasingly hungry world” because it produces more nutritious food more quickly, on less land, and in harsher climates, than any other major crop. Up to 85 percent of the plant is edible human food, compared to around 50 percent in cereals. It also has the highest protein content of any root or tuber. A medium-sized potato contains about half the vitamin C and one-fifth of the potassium recommended for daily intake, plus useful B vitamins, traces of minerals like zinc and iron, and fibre.

Pin-up potatoes
This global spotlight on potatoes creates a great opportunity for us veteran potato-eaters in the UK to appreciate the fascinating differences between different varieties. Under the influence of supermarkets, commercial breeding companies have been developing potatoes for yield, processing quality and appearance (free from deep-set eyes, all similarly shaped, and with no knobbly bits), and taste has come a poor second. Traditional varieties, prized for their flavour, coloured flesh and diverse textures, have lost out to white-fleshed modern varieties that grow well with lots of water and chemical fertilisers, such as Maris Piper, Maris Peer, Cara and Nadine.
Potatoes feature on the UK Pesticides Action Network’s top 10 list of foods most likely to contain pesticide residues. The main reason for using pesticides is that potatoes are particularly susceptible to blight, the same devastating fungus that caused the Irish potato famine of the 1840s and that destroys 20 percent of the world’s annual potato harvest.
So conventional growers use more chemical treatments on potatoes than on other crops.
Organic growers approach the challenge of growing potatoes by choosing varieties that are less susceptible to disease, such as Valor, Nicola, Cosmos, Desiree, Charlotte, Raja and Saxon. Instead of using chemical fertilisers, they grow potatoes in long rotations, interspersing them with other crops. Organic potatoes are often planted after a crop such as clover, that naturally fertilises the soil, and the soil is then dressed with manure.

Global solution
The underlying problem, however, is the narrow genetic base of the modern potato. There are some 150 different species of potatoes in the Andes, where the potato family originates, but all the potatoes grown outside that region come from one single sub-species, which leaves the world’s crop more vulnerable to disease. One solution advanced for this is genetic modification (GM). In the UK, German chemical company BASF has been trying to trial what it claims to be a disease-resistant variety since 2003. It has met with intense public opposition and crops in secret trial locations have been sabotaged. The International Potato Centre in Lima, Peru, has imposed a moratorium on planting GM potatoes in South America because of fears that genes introduced into GM potatoes might escape into wild potatoes. In Hungary and Scotland, scientists have successfully bred blight-resistent new varieties, such as the organic Sarpo and Lady Balfour, using conventional breeding techniques.
Lots of clever minds are now intensely focused on the humble spud. Once taken for granted, even overlooked, the tuber is now at the forefront of feeding the planet. Potato Pete would heartily approve.

This feature was taken from issue 16 of Countryfile Magazine. To make sure you never miss an issue subscribe today

Comments: 0
More about BBC Worldwide.