Dec 16, 2008

Food - King Potato

Surinder Sud

It beats rice and wheat in almost all respects.

Potato seems poised to emerge as a key food crop in the near future. First, potato yields more food per unit of land and per unit of time than either wheat or rice. And second, the potato-processing industry, which is expanding at a fast rate, is bound to accelerate the demand and, hence, the production of potatoes.

According to Shimla-based Central Potato Research Institute (CPRI), potato produces, on an average, around 47.6 kg of food (in terms of dry matter) per hectare per day. This is over two-and-a-half times wheat’s average productivity of 18.1 kg per hectare per day and almost three times rice’s 12.4 kg per hectare per day.

In terms of output of total protein per unit of land and time, too, potato has an edge over staple cereals though potato tuber in itself is a low-protein and low-energy food. The potato crop generates about 3 kg of edible protein per hectare per day, against merely 2.5 kg by wheat and just 1 kg by rice.

More importantly, the potato protein is superior to that present in wheat, maize, peas and bean in terms of biological value and compares well with that of milk. Besides, potato also contains several useful minerals which are either wholly absent or present partially in staple cereals.

In terms of total volume of output, the national average yield of potato is around 18 tonne a hectare, against 2.7 tonne a hectare of wheat and about 2.1 tonne a hectare of rice.

It was for these attributes of potato that its cultivation was promoted in a big way throughout Europe and Russia during World War-II to feed the population. In India, however, potato is not viewed as a replacement of wheat and rice, though its role as a versatile vegetable to go with staple cereals and as a snack food has been on the rise. That is chiefly why potato markets undergo glut conditions so often, forcing farmers either to plough down the crop into the soil instead of harvesting it, or refrain from reclaiming their potato stocks kept in cold stores because the market value of the produce falls below the cost of harvesting and storage. Severe potato gluts have been noticed in the country in 1975, 1979, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1997 and 2000. In the recent years, too, localised gluts have been observed in some intensive potato producing regions.

This problem, of course, will ease considerably with the growth of the potato processing industry. The proportion of potato output that goes for processing into various value-added products has risen from just around 1 per cent in the early 2000’s to almost 5 per cent now. This trend is anticipated to grow faster in the coming years thanks to the availability of potato varieties which are better endowed with quality traits required for processing.

According to CPRI director S K Pandey, the processing industry needs potato tubers with high dry matter content and low sugar content. The CPRI and other research institutes have, in recent years, bred several varieties which possess these traits.

The process-worthy varieties bred in India, such as Kufri Chipsona-1, Kufri Chipsona-2 and Kufri Chipsona-3, besides some others, are now exclusively being used for the production of products like potato chips and French fries. The quality of potato belonging to these varieties is superior to even the American varieties like Atlantic and Fritolay-1533 which the processing industry used to import in the past for producing potato products. However, the potato sector still has some serious problems at hand. A significant one is the tendency of these tubers to turn sweet during storage, especially during cold storage, due to the conversion of starch present in the tubers into sugar. This lowers their market value. This is a problem typical to India because of the necessity of storing potatoes into refrigerated warehouses for consumption during summer.

Indian potato breeders are now trying to get over this menace by using biotechnological tools. Similar efforts are on to combat diseases and pests of potato by imparting genetic resistance to plants to enable them to withstand their onslaught without any yield loss.

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