May 11, 2018
Alicia Azorsa, a 19-year-old farmer from the community of Castillapata, located in the Andean highlands of Peru, is happy to grow and consume the nutritious native potatoes. She is one of approximately 140 Quechua-speaking farmers in the Huancavelica region who are growing and evaluating improved potatoes with high levels of iron and zinc – resulting from almost 15 years of cross-breeding and selection of breeders at the International Potato Center (CIP ) – as part of an initiative to test and select nutritious potatoes for official release in Peru as new varieties.
These potatoes are the product of a process that began in 2004, when CIP scientists led by Dr. Merideth Bonierbale performed laboratory analyzes on approximately 200 potato natively cultivated in Peru and neighboring countries and identified 16 with high levels of iron, zinc and vitamin C. Subsequently, potato breeder Walter Amorós and his colleagues began to cross these 16 nutritious varieties to produce progenies with even higher levels of iron and zinc, a process known as biofortification.
Thanks to the project «Biodiversity and nutritional improvement of potatoes in Peru, Nepal and Bhutan», funded by the European Union, the CIP and its partners have begun to share these biofortified potatoes with small farmers such as Azorsa. In 2016, the CIP shared seed tubers of 17 biofortified clones with the Yanapai Group, a Peruvian non-profit organization, to be tested by small farmers in four communities in the municipality of Yauli, Huancavelica.
According to the Demographic and Family Health Survey (ENDES) 2015, Huancavelica is the region of Peru with the highest rate of malnutrition in children under 5 years: one third suffer chronic malnutrition and 40 percent have anemia. Malnutrition is also common among women in the region of reproductive age. Yanapai has complemented its promotion of biofortified potatoes with nutrition education, teaching local women how to improve their family diet by establishing vegetable gardens and ensuring that children eat enough food of animal origin such as eggs.
«We need to feed our children well,» Azorsa said. She explained that Luz, her two-year-old daughter, is already eating biofortified potatoes, and said they taste good. «We really like these potatoes because they protect us and our children against disease,» she added.
Raul Ccanto, coordinator of biodiversity and culture of Yanapai said that it has been easy to get local families to plant and eat biofortified potatoes because their flavor, texture and color are similar to those of traditionally grown native potatoes. He noted that his only concern is that biofortified potatoes become so popular that families consume most of the crops without leaving enough tubers for planting.
According to Gabriela Burgos, biologist and nutritionist at CIP, biofortified potatoes that have been cultivated in Huancavelica have between 40 and 80 percent more iron and zinc than the varieties commonly consumed in that region. She explained that while biofortified potatoes are not a panacea they can make a significant contribution to the reduction of anemia and malnutrition, especially since they contain high levels of vitamin C, which facilitates the absorption of iron and zinc. She stressed that biofortified potatoes are the result of the work of a multidisciplinary team and an intermediate product of a long-term effort, as CIP breeders continue to cross them to develop varieties with even higher levels of iron and zinc, as well as resistance to biotic and abiotic stresses that are becoming more intense due to climate change.
While enjoying the health benefits of consuming these nutritious tubers, Huancavelica farmers are participating in a selection process that should conclude with the official launch of one or more biofortified varieties in Peru, which could eventually be consumed by tens of thousands of Andean families. In 2017, farmers selected the best six clones of the 17 that they planted in 2016 and planted them when seasonal rains began in November 2017. CIP scientists conducted laboratory analyzes of these six clones to make sure they maintained their levels of zinc, iron and antioxidants. When the participating farmers harvest them at the end of May 2018, the process will be completed with the selection of one or two biofortified clones that the CIP and Yanapai will then recommend to the National Institute of Agrarian Innovation (INIA) to be officially released as new varieties of potato.
«Together with women farmers, we are working for the release of a new and biofortified variety, because it is the only way we can expand the cultivation of these potatoes to more communities,» Ccanto explained.
According to Burgos, participatory varietal selection is key to ensuring that the released varieties have the characteristics that local farmers require, which increases the chances of adoption. «We want this to be sustainable, and that enough farmers grow these potatoes because the process of developing them has been very long,» she said.
The experience with farmers in Huancavelica bodes well for the widespread acceptance of biofortified potatoes. Azorsa, for example, noted that she has planted seven of the biofortified potato clones in her farm, and added: «From now on, I will only plant biofortified varieties.»
Her neighbor Octavia Voza Castilla, 31, and mother of three children, explained that she and her husband are cultivating all 17 biofortified varieties that the CIP delivered in 2016, as well as 30 varieties of native potato that they have always sown. She also sows lettuce, onions, carrots and other vegetables in her backyard.
«I am very happy to be able to feed my children with these biofortified potatoes,» she emphasized. «My children used to get sick frequently, but now they don’t get sick as much as before and they have gained weight.»
Burgos reports that the CIP has shared some biofortified potato clones with its partners in Ethiopia, Rwanda and Kenya, where they are being selected in a participatory manner by farmers in the highlands of those countries. Meanwhile, Amorós and his colleagues have crossed native biofortified potatoes with advanced potato populations of the CIP breeding program in order to produce biofortified potatoes with better yields, greater adaptation, resistance to late blight and other diseases in addition to other desirable traits. In February of this year, the CIP and INIA signed a cooperation agreement to collaborate in field trials and the selection of candidates for new varieties of this second group of biofortified potatoes.
“We are pioneers in the biofortification of potatoes,” said Amorós. «We have accomplished a lot, but we need to continue to increase micronutrient levels and other desirable characteristics in those potatoes.» He explained that two or three cycles of selection should be sufficient to result in improved potato varieties with optimal levels of iron and zinc.
Burgos said she is proud to be a member of the team that has brought the biofortification of the potato to this point, moving from a purely scientific effort to one that is beginning to benefit people in rural areas with high levels of malnutrition.
«The simple fact that these parents can help many women and many children improve their nutrition and have a better quality of life makes me happy,» she concluded.