Combating Malnutrition and Gender Inequity with Potatoes in Colombia

The initiative, which distributed native potato varieties with relatively high micronutrient levels and provided training to improve farming practices and diet, was led by Colombia’s National University in partnership with Canada’s McGill University and University of New Brunswick. CIP joined as a third party to strengthen the National University’s potato breeding program and to build capacity for analyzing the nutritional content of potatoes.

CIP also provided input into the project’s engagement of smallholders, which included involving local men and women in the selection of the potato varieties that were distributed, and organizing meetings in which project participants discussed traditional farming practices, diet and gender roles. One of project’s priorities was to ensure a high level of involvement by women.

Teresa Mosquera, an agronomy professor at Colombia’s National University who coordinated the project, explained that it targeted five municipalities in Nariño that have some of the highest levels of malnutrition in the country, and where most farmers are members of the indigenous Pasto ethnic group, whose main sources of food and income are native potato landraces.

Teresa Mosquera with Pasto women and Canadian researcher David DeKoeyer at project closing ceremony
Teresa Mosquera with Pasto women and Canadian researcher David DeKoeyer at project closing ceremony

Leonor Perilla, who led the project’s gender component, explained that it included participatory research to identify problems and possibilities related to the roles of Pasto women and men in farming, food security, nutrition and the care of children.

“Women play a fundamental role in food security. They also play a fundamental role in incorporating new potato varieties into their family’s diet,” Perilla said.

CIP researchers trained and helped National University doctoral candidate Clara Piñeros to analyze the nutritional characteristics of native potatoes from the university’s breeding program – many of which were collected in Nariño – and contributed to the process of selecting the native potato varieties that the project distributed to farmers. CIP also sent the National University improved potato germplasm, which included clones that are the result of years of breeding for increased levels of iron and zinc, which will be adapted to local conditions and distributed in the future.

“For us, participating in this project was an outcome opportunity,” said Merideth Bonierbale, the leader of CIP’s Genetics and Crop Improvement Global Program. “We look for opportunities to work with more development-oriented organizations to ensure that the technologies we develop reach the people who need them.”

Bonierbale explained that the biofortified clones that CIP sent to the National University are intermediate products of a long-term process that began almost a decade ago, when researchers analyzed the nutritional characteristics of germplasm in the CIP Genebank and identified native potatoes with high levels of iron and zinc. The subsequent years of breeding have resulted in native potato lines with nutritional characteristics that are ideal for helping populations at risk of malnutrition – especially women and children.

Those improved native potatoes are also being crossed with CIP’s elite breeding lines, in order to combine their enhanced nutritional content with traits such as disease resistance, drought or heat tolerance and earliness (a shorter growing cycle). The progeny of those crosses will eventually be distributed to vulnerable communities in East Africa and Asia.

CIP researcher Gabriela Burgos, who served as the principal liaison with the National University, compared the project to earlier initiatives such as IssAndes and Acción Contra el Hambre, which involved nutritional characterization of the native potatoes traditionally consumed in the target areas, and getting improved potato material from CIP’s greenhouses out to rural communities. “One thing they all have in common is that they are contributing to improved health,” she said.

Bonierbale noted that such interventions not only improve the lives of rural families, they also allow CIP to established partnerships for future collaborations, and develop models that can be replicated in other regions.

Nariño farmer with improved potato seeds
Nariño farmer with improved potato seeds

“Nutritional enhancement is oriented toward target populations at risk of malnutrition. Reaching those people isn’t easy, and targeting a technology and delivery strategy to different populations involves quite a bit of institutional interaction and linkages beyond the research program itself,” she said.

Extensionists from the Colombian organization FUNDELSURCO, another project partner, taught the farmers better agronomic practices, and helped to organize meetings in which Pasto men and women discussed gender roles, nutrition and other pertinent themes.

Perilla explained that during the project’s closing ceremony, Olivia Colimba, a woman from the town of Guachucal who participated in some of those meetings, thanked the researchers for organizing them, saying that she had learned a lot and appreciated the opportunity to express herself. “The truth is that we all learned from those meetings,” Perilla noted.

The project has already distributed potato seed for two improved cultivars to approximately 600 farmers in five municipalities, and a second lot of potato seed is scheduled for distribution in October. Mosquera observed that participating farmers are expected to multiply seed and sell it to other farmers, so that the project’s impact will extend beyond the target communities.

“The hope is that these cultivars will be adopted by more communities, which is especially important when you consider that Nariño produces potatoes for other regions of Colombia,” she said.

The project was funded by the International Development Research Center (IDRC) and the Department for Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD) through the Canadian International Food Security Research Fund (CIFSRF).

gender inequity, malnutrition