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High in the Andes, poor farmer is “dirt rich” in potato diversity

Asking a custodian potato farmer in Peru’s Andes which is his favorite native spud is like asking him to choose which of his children he would save in a sinking ship. Leoncio Quinto answers the question by shooting off a list of 20 varieties. The question is repeated “but which one is your favorite?” – Leoncio, who just harvested 200 varieties this May on his hectare plot, looks at the visitor with a quizzical expression “the ones I just told you.”

At some 4,000 meters above sea level, where little but the potato is hardy enough to withstand the inhospitable climate, it is not uncommon to eat potatoes for breakfast, lunch and dinner – so potato variety is sought to break the culinary monotony.

Leoncio lives in Huancavelica – one of Peru’s poorest and most remote regions. He has six daughters, a simple mud and stone house, and a scattering of pigs, sheep, three cows and guinea pigs. With a very modest income, some may say he is dirt poor. In Leoncio’s eyes, however, he is dirt rich – through his fertile soil, he has just harvested a magnificent abundance of potatoes using traditional practices that have been passed down for generations.

Being a custodian farmer is Leoncio’s passion, and one that he hopes to pass on to his daughters. In Peru, there are more than 4,000 native potato varieties, which represent thousands of years of evolutionary adaptation, resilience, and selection.  Custodian farmers are the guardians of varietal diversity and have particularly rich family stocks that often contain unique varieties that have been passed on from one generation to the next.

Leoncio Quinto, his wife and eldest daughters (Marina is far right)

The potato is the third most consumed food crop in the world, with annual production approaching 300 million tons. The International Potato Center (CIP), which works with Leoncio to help conserve his native potatoes in his fields, also maintains the world's largest collection of potato germplasm in its genebank for research, utilization, and off site (ex-situ) conservation. In the near future CIP’s Genetic Resources Program aims to implement pilot cases of benefit sharing that can directly improve the welfare of custodian farmers such as Leoncio.

Leoncio’s plot may be humble, but his contribution to the conservation of crop diversity is grandiose. In the face of large-scale farming that favors uniformity and monoculture to maximize efficiency and profits, Leoncio’s handiwork is conserving 5 percent of the world’s native potato diversity on less than 10,000 square meters and with no chemicals or pesticides.

Leoncio’s thinking is long-term: “My forefathers entrusted me with this legacy, which is our daily sustenance. Now, I hope to continue the tradition through my daughters.”

Genetic diversity is important, as it can be exploited in breeding programs to combine potato lines that are resistant to shifting threats from pests, disease, and climate change. A plague can wipe out a whole year’s production, while bacteria, viruses, or pests can remain active in the soil for several years.

Traditionally, vulnerability to pests and disease has been addressed by diversifying risk. Ancestral farming practices in the Andes basically follow the “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” credo by planting a diverse range of potato varieties across numerous plots spread out over a wide area. In addition, they prescribe rotating land use for eight years to let the soil regenerate and to ensure that any bacteria, virus, or pests have died out.

Newer farming practices are dependent on the use of pesticides and chemicals to stave off plagues. Along with human health risks associated with the use of these products, the bacteria, viruses, and pests can develop resistance to chemicals and pesticides over time. Also new strains develop periodically. These risks highlight the importance of conserving and sustaining ongoing evolution of a diverse pool of native potato varieties that may hold natural resistances in their genes.

Of the thousands of traditional potato varieties that grow in the Andean highlands, however, only a handful reach the markets in Lima, and almost none are known abroad. Markets demand potatoes that are practical to peel, chop, and fry. For this reason and many others, potato diversity may be threatened – a trend, that applies to most commercial crops.

Leoncio’s six daughters, in their beautiful, vibrant traditional garb, range from age nine to 17 years. They bounce up and down the steep hills with the same agility of the sheep they herd.

Marina is the oldest and one year away from finishing highschool. She will be the first Quinto member to ever finish secondary school. She helps her father pull potatoes of different colors and shapes from the rich, black soil. She passes him an extremely rare variety called allqu yupi or “dog’s paw” after its unique appearance.

She looks defiantly at the visitor who asks her what she wants to do after high school: “I will continue my father’s work,” she replies, “but I will do it better, with an even bigger collection of native potatoes!”

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