Potatoes - The world's favourite vegetable
Potatoes represent the fourth largest food crop globally and are considered to be the number one vegetable crop in the world. Today more than 8,000 varieties of potato are grown in over 130 countries. It is estimated that more than 350 million tonnes are grown on 195,000 square kilometres.
Most of the production is in developing countries where it is providing a solution to food security and food shortage issues. This of course is replicating the trend in Europe through the Middle Ages, during which it stabilised food supplies allowing for population growth. By 2050, the global population will have increased by two billion people to nine billion, and it is expected that potatoes will play an even more significant role in addressing food security issues. China alone, will require a 50% increase in food production or food supply which will create enormous export opportunities for Australian producers.
History of the potato
The potato is a native of the Andean Mountains, Peru. Following the conquest of the Inca civilisation in 1532, Spanish explorers returned to Europe with the potato. Sir Walter Raleigh is credited with introducing the potato to the British Isles.
The early European settlers of Australia initially planted potatoes in the Parramatta district west of Sydney. By 1797, 4.5 hectares were under potato crop, a decade later this area had increased to 122 hectares, and by 1906 (nearly a century later), 48,000 hectares of potatoes were under crop in Australia. Today approximately 35,500 hectares produce a total of 1.2 million tonnes, comprising many varieties.
In more recent times, potatoes hold the honour of being the only vegetable to feature in an historical event. The Irish Potato Famine (1845-49) resulted in the death of more than 750,000 people and another two million left their homeland for Great Britain, Canada, and the United States. Within five years, the Irish population was reduced by a quarter. The potato crop, the staple food in Ireland, failed over successive years due to late blight, spread by Phytophthora infestans, a fungus-like organism. The precise strain of the pathogen was identified recently, in May 2013. Click here to read more.
During World War II, fish and chips were the only food not rationed in the United Kingdom, and in 1995, potatoes were the first food grown in space aboard the space shuttle Columbus.
Potato production occurs around Australia with the exception of the far northern areas where temperatures exceed the optimal growing conditions for this cool-season crop. All states grow significant quantities of potatoes with the cooler states of South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria harvesting the largest volume.
Although the area under potatoes has fallen about 26% in the last 100 years, production has risen five fold. From the late-1800s, area planted increased until the 1930s when plantings declined. A sharp rise during World War II was followed by another decline but this coincided with improved farming practices, (fertiliser and irrigation) and the resulting stronger yield, lifted production. Over the last 30 years, areas planted to potatoes have remained steady.
Average yields of approximately 35 tonnes per hectare are achieved in Australia. As recently as 1970, yields were only half what they are today. Based on the production and area estimates of the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), average world yield approximates 18 tonnes per hectare. Australia's national average yield easily surpasses this rate and we achieve yields similar to Denmark and Ireland. The United States of America, France and the Netherlands continue to dominate, with yields of approximately 43 tonnes per hectare.
Potatoes grow quickly, are adaptable, high yielding and responsive to low inputs. In the world fight against hunger and malnutrition, the ability of the potato to contribute significant proportions of the recommended daily allowance for some minerals and vitamins may prove to be a life saver. The FAO states that 'potatoes are ideally suited to places where land is limited and labour is abundant...conditions which characterise much of the developing world'. To highlight these attributes and raise awareness on the role the potato can play in defeating hunger and poverty in the world, the United Nations declared 2008 to be the International Year of the Potato.