“Every Color in My Pencil Box”

Growing up in Assam, India, CIP researcher Sampriti Baruah remembers having potatoes with nearly every dish, but it was always secondary to rice. Rice was the staple. Potato was an afterthought, served with string beans, served with lentils, served with okra. Some in her family thought potato would make you overweight or cause diabetes. In other words, the potato was held in low esteem.

Years later, in graduate school, Baruah studied social development and sustainable livelihoods before moving on to the International Rice Research Institute and then the International Potato Center. As a social scientist, the potato changed suddenly, becoming something much more than starchy carbohydrate that grew easily in moist soil.

Baruah (right) with a potato farmer focus group.

In Vietnam and India, she talked to smallholder farmers who were stressed to squeeze profits out of their modest parcels of land. So, they combined their plots and shared the gains with each other, taking advantage of the economies of scale they could achieve working as one large unit rather than ten smaller ones.

Within this setting, Baruah saw how the potato could become an “instrument of development,” as she calls it. “It’s a high value crop with a short growing cycle. Potato ensures more income than many cereals, so it makes sense to add this to your rotation.”

But the value of potato extends beyond money, Baruah notes. “The implications for gender cannot be ignored. Potatoes are easier to plant and because most women in Asia do not work with machines, potatoes are a good source of stability for women. They are insurance against disaster.”

Insurance against disaster isn’t a mere metaphor. In South and Southeast Asia where monsoons and typhoons bring floods, potatoes are the first crop one can grow. It is the first food back on the table after disaster hits, helping farmers get back on their feet.

Back at home, Baruah extolls the virtue of potato with her family and friends. “It’s more than comfort food and it doesn’t cause diabetes, I tell them. Freshly-harvested potatoes have a low glycemic index and have high levels of iron and zinc.”

Baruah likes spreading the word about potatoes in her work. She says one issue is lack of exposure to the variety of potatoes. Most people tend to think of a standard white potato. “We showed ‘Lady Rosetta’ (a red potato) to some farmers in India and they tried to wash off the red. They thought we had artificially colored the skin to make it look unique and attractive.”

“We need to make people understand that potatoes have so many uses,” she says, “They come in every color available in my pencil box.”