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The humble spud

Feb 26 2015   |   By: mike-jackson   |   0   |  

The potato (Solanum tuberosum) has something scientifically for everyone: the taxonomist or someone interested in crop diversity, geneticist or molecular biologist, breeder, agronomist, plant pathologist or entomologist, seed production specialist, biotechnologist, or social scientist. So many challenges – so many opportunities, especially since many potatoes are polyploids; that is, they have multiple sets of chromosomes, from 2x=24 to 6x=72.

Much of my own work – both in the Andes of Peru in the early 70s and once I was back in Birmingham during the 80s – focused on potato genetic resources, understanding the evolutionary dynamics of speciation, and the distribution and breeding value of wild potatoes.

MTJ collecting cultivated potatoes in 1974

If you’re interested in species diversity, then the potato is the crop for you. In South America there are many indigenous varieties integral to local farming systems at high altitude. Grown alongside other crops such as oca (Oxalis tuberosa) and other Andean tubers of limited distribution, quinoa, and introduced crops such as barley and faba bean (that must have been brought to South America by the Spanish in the 16th century and afterwards). In a recent series on BBC TV (The Inca – Masters of the Cloud), archaeologist and South American expert Dr Jago Cooper repeatedly talked about the wonders of Incan agriculture as one of the foundations of that society yet, disappointingly chose not to illustrate anything of indigenous agriculture today. Farmers still grow potatoes and other crops on the exactly the same terraces that the Incas constructed hundreds of years ago (see my post about Cuyo Cuyo, for example). The continued cultivation of native potato varieties today is a living link with the Incas.

Native potatoes

Native cultivated potatoes are found throughout the Andes from Colombia and Venezuela in the north, south through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile, and into northern Argentina. One of the main centres of diversity lies in the region of Lake Titicaca that straddles the border between Peru and Bolivia.

Another important centre of diversity is in the island of Chiloé , southeast of Puerto Montt, a well-known potato growing region of Chile.

The wild tuber-bearing Solanums have a much wider distribution, from the USA south through Mexico and Central America, and widely in South America. And from the coast of Peru to over 4000 m in the high Andes. They certainly have a wide ecological range. But how many wild species are there? Well, it depends who you follow, taxonomy-wise.

SM Bukasov
SM Bukasov

Some of the earliest studies (in the 1930s) were made by Russian potato experts SM Bukasov and SV Juzepczuk, contemporaries of the great geneticist and plant breeder, Nikolai I Vavilov.

In 1938, a young Cambridge graduate, Jack Hawkes (on the left below), visited the Soviet Union to meet with Bukasov (and Vavilov) as he would soon be joining a year-long expedition to the Americas to collect wild and cultivated potatoes. His PhD thesis (under the supervision of Sir Redcliffe Salaman) was one of the first taxonomies of wild potatoes. By 1963, Hawkes had published a second edition of A Revision of the Tuber-Bearing Solanums. By 1990 [1] the number of wild species that he recognized had increased to 228 and seven cultivated ones. Hawkes (and his Danish colleague Peter Hjerting) focused much of their effort on the wild potatoes of the southern cone countries (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) [2] and Bolivia [3]. Working at the National Agrarian University and the International Potato Center (CIP) in La Molina, Lima, Peru, potato breeder and taxonomist Carlos Ochoa (on the right below) spent several decades exploring the Andes of his native country, and discovered many new species. But he also produced monographs on the potatoes of Bolivia [4] and Peru [5].

Both Hawkes and Ochoa – rivals to some extent – primarily used plant morphology to differentiate the species they described or recognized, but also using the tools of biosystematics (crossing experiments) and a detailed knowledge of species distributions and ecology.

I made only one short collecting trip with Jack Hawkes, in March 1975 just before I returned to Birmingham to defend my PhD thesis. Travelling in the Andes between Cerro de Paso, Huanuco and Lima, at one point he asked me to stop our vehicle. “There are wild potatoes near here,” he told me. “To be specific, I think we’ll find Solanum bukasovii”. And within minutes, he had. That’s because Jack had a real feel for the ecology of wild potatoes; he could almost smell them out. I’m sure Carlos Ochoa was just the same, if not more so.

Professor Jack Hawkes, OBE (left) & Carlos Ochoa, renowned peruvian potato Taxonomist (right)
Professor Jack Hawkes, OBE (left) & Carlos Ochoa, renowned peruvian potato Taxonomist (right)

The potato taxonomist’s mantle was taken up in the early 1990s by USDA Agricultural Research Service professor David Spooner at the University of Wisconsin. Over two decades, and many field expeditions, he has published an impressive number of papers on potato biology. More importantly, he added molecular analyses to arrive at a comprehensive revision and understanding of the diversity of the tuber-bearing Solanums. In fact, in December 2014, Spooner and his co-authors published one of the most important papers on the biodiversity of wild and cultivated potatoes, recognizing just 107 wild and four cultivated species [6]. For anyone interested in crop evolution and systematics, and potatoes in particular, I thoroughly recommend you take the time to look at their paper (available as a PDF file).

March 1975, somewhere above Canta in Lima Province. Small population of Solanum multidissectum
March 1975, somewhere above Canta in Lima Province. Probably a small population of Solanum multidissectum = S. candolleanum (that now includes S. bukasovii)


[1] Hawkes, JG. 1990. The Potato – Evolution, Biodiversity and Genetic Resources. Belhaven Press, London.
[2] Hawkes, JG & JP Hjerting. 1969. The Potatoes of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay – A Biosystematic Study. Annals of Botany Memoirs No. 3, Clarendon Press, Oxford.
[3] Hawkes, JG & JP Hjerting. 1989. The Potatoes of Bolivia – Their Breeding Value and Evolutionary Relationships. Clarendon Press, Oxford.
[4] Ochoa, CM. 1990. The Potatoes of South America: Bolivia. Cambridge University Press.
[5] Ochoa, CM. 2004. The Potatoes of South America: Peru. Part 1. The Wild Species. International Potato Center, Lima, Peru.
[6] Spooner, DM, David M. Spooner, M Ghislain, R Simon, SH Jansky & T Gavrilenko. 2014. Systematics, diversity, genetics, and evolution of wild and cultivated potatoes. Bot. Rev. 80:283–383 DOI 10.1007/s12229-014-9146-y.

Originally posted at Mike Jackson is a former CIP scientist. He authored several publications on plant genetic resources.

First French Training of Trainers (ToT) Course on Sweetpotato for Francophone Africa

Feb 24 2015   |   By: godfrey-mulongo-hilda-munyua   |   0   |  

The gender sensitive course was hosted by Centre Agricole Polyvalent de Matourkou (CAP-M) in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso. The course was co-organized by the Jumpstarting project (Promouvoir la patate douce à chair orange en Afrique de l'Ouest à travers des marchés diversifiés), and the Reaching Agents of Change (RAC) project (Atteindre les Agents de Changement), in partnership with CAP-M, Institut de l'Environnement et de Recherches Agricoles (INERA), International Development Enterprises (iDE) and Helen Keller International (HKI).

Before the training, the RAC team facilitated a 5-day pre-training session. Twelve (12) facilitators (4 from CAP-M, 4 from INERA, 2 from Institut de Recherche en Sciences Appliquées et de Technologie (IRSAT), 1 from Jumpstarting Project and 1 from HKI attended the session (12th – 16th January 2015). The RAC specialists worked alongside their national counterparts and developed session plans, tailored Power Point presentations, prepared training materials and field activities for the course. The pre-training equipped the national facilitators with communication and facilitation skills which prepared them for the 10-day training.

ToT course Burkina
Pre-training sessions: RAC’s Jonathan Mkumbira works closely with the national facilitators to prepare session plans in readiness for the ToT course. Photocredit: Godfrey Mulongo

The course focused on key aspects of sweetpotato value chain and highlighted the importance of recognizing gender and diversity issues in sweetpotato. The course adopted the adult learning methodology and a mix of lectures, cases, plenary and group discussions, buzz sessions, learning-by-doing exercises, field and site visits and demonstrations were used. Participants learned about the origin and importance of sweetpotato, how to identify different OFSP varieties, sweetpotato production and management aspects, management of pests and diseases, Triple S, construction of net tunnels, how to harvest, store, process, package and market OFSP, entrepreneurship as well as how to plan for training course.

ToT course Burkina
Pre-training field preparations: RAC’s Jude Njoku works with national facilitators to inspect the field in readiness for practicals. Photocredit: Godfrey Mulongo

It was particularly impressive to see that in Burkina Faso, the government is encouraging farmers to plant OFSP under irrigation and farmers have responded by producing OFSP sweetpotato on mounds after harvesting rice.

ToT course Burkina
RAC’s Jonathan Mkumbira , with Dakouo Gabriel (Primary facilitator) instruct a ToT participant (Secondary facilitator) through learning by doing. Photocredit: Godfrey Mulongo

Participants and facilitators were excited about the training and following is what some had to say:

"The adult learning methodology was an eye opener. Now we realize where we were going wrong in teaching adults"
"The TOT course on sweetpotato is very linked to what is done at Centre Agricole Polyvalent de Matourkou hence the college will be a promotor of OFSP. They will be looking at options of scaling up and down the TOT course to farmers"
"Net tunnel construction and rapid multiplication practical sessions were very good and educative"
"Participatory, very well mastered and very satisfying. All facilitators covered their topics very well and M&E was very well explained"

ToT course Burkina
Varietal selection exercise. Photocredit: Jonathan Mkumbira

A benchmark test given at the beginning of training and at the end of the course showed that all participants had some knowledge of sweetpotato at the beginning of the course. The post-course test results showed a positive improvement in sweetpotato knowledge by 26%.

ToT course Burkina
Participants’ pre and post-course test results (% scores) ranked from best to least for the post-course test results

The training provided a platform for the diverse group of sweetpotato actors from different Francophone countries to share experiences and learn, and helped to foster stronger links between institutions and projects working on sweetpotato in Francophone Africa. The capacity of national implementing agencies has been strengthened and participants developed “Action Plans.” It is expected that each participant will go back to their institution or community and organize a similar training of shorter duration through the ‘step-down’ strategy.

For more information:

Contact Hilda Munyua, Training and Communications Specialist and Deputy Project Manager – Reaching Agents of Change (RAC) project at

For more information on training courses visit:

To download the learning toolkits visit:

An oktokopter, the new comer in the sky of Sub-Saharan Africa for agricultural applications

Feb 10 2015   |   By: dieudonne   |   0   |  

An Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) for Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has been assembled and tested through a close collaboration between the International Potato Center (CIP), the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and the University of Nairobi (UoN). Assembled at ICRAF Land Health Decisions Unit in mid-January 2015 and then tested at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) campus, the so waited platform has an overwhelming agenda over the SSA landscapes for various applications. From monitoring soil, animal and plant health status to crop yield forecasting, this new technology is expected to improve accuracy and timeliness of data that will guide decision-making process and improve the quality of interventions in the rural areas. However obtaining flight permits in different countries represents the first among several hurdles the technology will have to face before it is fully established as a routine tool for acquiring data for agricultural statistics. The issue is further complicated by lack of regulatory frameworks on the use of UAVs in the region. This initiative is supported by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and contributes to several CGIAR Research programs (CRPs) including Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE), Humidtropics, Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) and CCAFS (Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security).

For more information on this technology please send an email to Dr. Roberto Quiroz ( or visit the UAV-SSA photo album and video and/or the community of practice around this technology.

To see the Oktokopter Photo Gallery in full screen, click here

Strengthening Local Capacity to Breed Better Sweetpotatoes

Feb 06 2015   |   By: david-dudenhoefer   |   0   |  

Maria Andrade, a CIP sweetpotato breeder based in Maputo, Mozambique, can hardly believe the progress that has been made on improving that important crop for African farmers in recent years. “A decade ago, there were very few (sweetpotato) breeding programs in Africa; they mostly depended on the introduction of material from other countries or regions to do adaptive trials, and that material often did not adapt to local conditions,” she explains.

Andrade is one of four CIP scientists who have spearheaded a transformation of sweetpotato breeding in sub-Saharan Africa over the past five years. They are working to expand and accelerate the development of varieties that are adapted to local conditions in order to improve food security, health and incomes.

CIP is strengthening the sweetpotato breeding capacity of national agricultural research systems (NARS) across the continent, in close coordination with the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), as part of the Sweetpotato Action for Security and Health in Africa (SASHA) project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. CIP has provided the latest technology and helped breeders adopt new tools and methods through training and knowledge sharing. This has created a breeders’ community of practice that has produced impressive results: 46 new sweetpotato varieties released in the region since 2009, 37 of which are orange-fleshed varieties rich in beta-carotene (provitamin A) that can greatly improve the health of young children. And because it takes years to develop and release a new variety, the initiative’s output has barely begun.

“There is no comparison with the way things were 10 years ago, because we are now in this network,” Andrade says. “We speak the same language and we use a common protocol with common procedures. Through this interaction, we are really making progress.”

Support Platforms at the Core of Decentralization

Wolfgang Grüneberg, who coordinates CIP’s efforts to improve sweetpotato breeding, explains that a decade ago, CIP emphasized a centralized breeding approach in which new varieties were developed in Peru and shipped to other regions for evaluation and possible adoption. Now CIP prioritizes a decentralized approach, which focuses on strengthening national breeding programs and taking advantage of the genetic diversity of local sweetpotato populations.

To achieve this, CIP has established support platforms in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and Asia that are strengthening the breeding programs of NARS in those regions. These include three sub-regional platforms in SSA that support local breeding efforts: an East Africa platform based in Uganda, a Southern Africa platform based in Mozambique and a West Africa platform based in Ghana. Because of the decentralized breeding approach’s success in Africa, an Asian platform was recently established to work with NARS in India, Bangladesh and Indonesia. CIP’s work in South America and Haiti remains centralized, with varieties being developed at CIP headquarters in Lima, Peru, with the exception of a NARS breeding program in Cuba.

Over the past five years, each African support platform has organized one or two regional workshops per year, and CIP has brought Africa’s top sweetpotato breeders together for annual meetings. CIP scientists also arrange capacity building for smaller groups in specific countries as needed. CIP has developed and provided training in protocols and software for data management, analysis and sharing; the use of molecular markers for parental breeding; and an accelerated breeding scheme to reduce the time it takes from the initial cross to having a variety ready for release.

“We put an emphasis on sharing knowledge, and it is trickling down. Each of the breeders that participates in the workshops usually has one or two technicians working with them, as well colleagues in their institution who work on other crops,” Grüneberg explains. “There are now more sweetpotato breeding programs in Africa, more breeders with more knowledge of African sweetpotato breeding material and, most importantly, there are many more sweetpotato crosses being made in Africa for Africa.”

Robert Mwanga, who heads the East Africa support platform, notes that decentralized breeding is essential because each region is composed of different environments, making it difficult to develop a variety that will thrive in all parts of a country, let alone several countries. While all the platforms promote the development of resilient sweetpotato varieties with high nutrient content and dry matter, each one also focuses on a specific trait of importance for their region. In the case of East Africa, the priority trait is virus resistance, whereas in Southern Africa, it’s drought tolerance, and in West Africa, it’s low sugar content.

“The three platforms have different major focuses, but we all come together for a single training with the same tools. This way we minimize the duplication of efforts and maximize the use of resources,” says Mwanga.

According to Ted Carey, who manages the West Africa breeding platform, in close collaboration with Ghana’s Crops Research Institute (CRI), sweetpotato was a seriously neglected crop in that region prior to SASHA. Five years ago CRI was simply introducing and releasing varieties today it has a modern breeding program that makes crosses, analyzes progeny using the latest approaches, and develops new varieties.

“We have two major objectives – population improvement and participatory variety selection for release,” says Carey. “All of our activities are thoroughly collaborative, from the beginning to the release.”

Accelerated breeding

CIP’s capacity building efforts are complimented by AGRA’s support for graduate students and post-docs in sweetpotato breeding. CIP has provided equipment for procedures such as near infrared reflectance spectroscopy and software such as CloneSelector, and has trained African scientists in the use of that technology, all of which is speeding up the breeding process.

“CIP wants to revolutionize conventional sweetpotato breeding,” observes Mwanga.

One of CIP’s most revolutionary contributions has been the accelerated breeding scheme. Traditionally sweetpotato breeding programs have taken eight years to develop a new variety, this new technique has resulted in the development of various new varieties by different breeding programs in only four years. Accelerated breeding takes advantage of the fact that in breeding clonally propagated crops, each true seed plant is a potential variety. After each plant from a true seed is rapidly multiplied, the vine cuttings are planted in different environments for simultaneous field tests. The key to accelerated breeding is the early testing of genotypes over multiple locations, in contrast to the traditional approach of multiple cycles of evaluation at one location before going to multi-location testing as a final step in the selection process. Sweetpotato breeders can now identify viable candidates faster than they used to.

African scientists using this accelerated breeding scheme have adopted the moniker ‘speedbreeders,’ and their work is resulting in the development and release of more resilient and healthy sweetpotato varieties than African farmers have ever had access to before. Those varieties will play a vital role in efforts to improve diets and livelihoods across the continent, and to feed a growing population while adapting to a changing climate.

CIP is strengthening the sweetpotato breeding capacity of national agricultural research systems (NARS) across the continent
Robert Mwanga discusses the platform concept near an OFSP crossing block in Rwanda

“Our community of practice is quite coherent, and the result is that more varieties are being released and they are being developed much more quickly than in the past,” Mwanga observes. “I think that we will accomplish a lot in the coming years.”

For further information, read: Grüneberg W.J., Mwanga R., Andrade M. and Espinoza J., 2009. Selection methods Part 5: Breeding clonally propagated crops. In: S. Ceccarelli, E.P. Guimarães, E. Weltzien (eds) Plant breeding and Farmer Participation, 275 – 322. FAO, Rome.

Out of the forests and into the highlands: African and Indian farmers discover holistic living in Quechua communities

Jan 22 2015   |   By: manon   |   0   |  

"When I look around, it looks just like my environment in Burundi."

Our participant from Zimbabwe adds:

"It also looks very much like Zimbabwe. This is why I believe in God, because how can it be possible that we are doing exactly the same practices in Zimbabwe, as in Burundi, as here in Peru. Someone must have taught our forefathers what to do; someone must have given a sign all around the world how to best manage our landscapes."

This was exactly the goal of the farmers exchange organized by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and Asociación ANDES. These three organizations are working together with farmer groups to promote inter-farmer learning, and exchange experiences to better understand how farmers can deal with the consequences of climate change in their daily lives. Two farmers from the Eastern Himalayas in India, two farmers from Kenya and about ten farmers from Quechua communities in the Potato Park participated.

The potato is the main crop grown in the Park and the main character of this exchange. Photocredit: Manon Koningstein (CIAT)
The potato is the main crop grown in the Park and the main character of this exchange. Photocredit: Manon Koningstein (CIAT)

The Potato Park, located in Peru’s Sacred Valley of the Incas, is an indigenous Quechua area, which is the cradle of the potato and harbors the highest in-situ diversity of native potatoes in the world. Rising temperatures and pests have forced farmers in this area to move their crops higher and higher up the “planting line” to produce the yields they need to feed their families and make a living. Shifts to higher areas in which potato crops can be viably produced are creating competition for land between potato crops and other crops and other land uses. Potato Park farmers are working with scientists from the International Potato Center (CIP) to determine how to respond to these challenges, including how the rich potato diversity used by these farmers can thrive in different ranges of the landscape.

A big focus of the daily lives of the indigenous farmers in the park is how to cope with the heightened exposure of their landscapes to negative impacts of climate change. In response to this challenge, they are developing strategies to become more resilient, by combining their rich traditional knowledge and using the area to understand, monitor and respond to current and projected levels of exposure to these climate-related sensitivities. All of this together has made these 9000 hectares of communal land into a so-called “Living Lab of Climate Change and Adaptation”, and the setting for three days of learning exchange between farmers experiencing similar problems.

With men migrating to the cities in search for work, women are often left alone with their children. Photocredit: Manon Koningstein (CIAT)
With men migrating to the cities in search for work, women are often left alone with their children. Photocredit: Manon Koningstein (CIAT)

The local farmers explained us how they live and work on site to protect the potato, one of the world’s most important staple crops, and use its diversity to prepare and counter the limits and restrictions to local adaptive capacity that climate change is bringing upon their production systems and livelihoods.

Among the three cultural groups present, the spiritual understanding of climate change worked as a guiding principle through the discussions. The Quechua farmers reach for a Sumaq Causay (‘holistic living’) being led by local knowledge and spirits. Being called ‘apus’ in Quechua, which stands for the spirits of the mountains or ‘roho’ in Swahili, which stands for the spirits that are mainly found in forests, it was clear that all find their answers in nature. The Quechua farmers expressed that the drastic changes in the climate refer to pachamama (mother earth) to be mad. The Kenyan farmer asked them whether they have asked their spirits why their climate is changing and what kind of answers she has given. Being a forestry spiritual leader himself, he finds his answers in the forest; the spirits tell him what to do with his fields and how to communicate this to his community. However, finding himself in the Peruvian Highlands, high above the tree line, where there are hardly any (native) forests or trees, he wondered where they find their answers. The Quechua farmers explained him that the mountains give those answers: the disappearing of the snow on the sacred mountains, the higher elevation of the flights of the local birds; they are all answers from pachamama to start taking care of the climate.

The exchange was a big succes with many learning experiences and time to understand the other's culture. Photocredit: Manon Koningstein (CIAT)
The exchange was a big succes with many learning experiences and time to understand the other's culture. Photocredit: Manon Koningstein (CIAT)

Valuing traditional knowledge is one of the key focal points of the park, as well as of this learning exchange: the critical contribution that traditional agricultural resource management systems provide to biodiversity conservation and to meeting climate-related national and international goals and targets is huge.

An Indian farmer from the Eastern Himalaya noted that she has been very motivated by her visit to these communities.

"I thought that we are experiencing a rough situation in my community, but when I look around in these highlands, I see that the climate is having much more consequences here. But I also see that these communities have adapted quite well, to these changes. Therefore, if they can do it, we can do it! And that is one of the main messages I want to take back to my community."

Click here to see the photos of the learning exchange

Farmers Learning Exchange organized by CCAFS, IIED and Andes.
Farmers Learning Exchange organized by CCAFS, IIED and Andes.


The Potato Park is governed by an association of six Quechua communities; the goal of this integrated landscape management approach is to increase the multi-functionality of agricultural landscapes in the face of climate change for: food production, biocultural heritage conservation, sustainable livelihood, coordination and planning, and ecosystem conservation. This approach has allowed the conservation of 1,460 varieties of native potato; 400 of these varieties come to the Park through a landmark Repatriation agreement with the International Potato Center (CIP) - the first agreement of its kind.

Originally published on