Iron- and zinc-rich potatoes hold the promise of better health for rural families

Alicia Azorsa is happy to be growing and eating the biofortified native potatoes developed by CIP.

Alicia Azorsa, a 19-year-old farmer in the village of Castillapata, in Peru’s Andean highlands, is happy to be growing and eating nutritious native potatoes. She is one of approximately 140 indigenous farmers in Huancavelica region who are cultivating and evaluating improved potato varieties with high levels of iron and zinc – the result of almost 15 years of crosses and selection by potato breeders at the International Potato Center (CIP) – as part of an initiative to test and select nutritious potatoes for official release as new varieties.

Those potatoes are the products of a process that began in 2004, when CIP scientists led by Dr. Merideth Bonierbale undertook lab analyses of approximately 200 native potato landraces from Peru and neighboring countries and identified 16 with high levels of iron, zinc and vitamin C. CIP potato breeder Walter Amorós and colleagues then began crossing those 16 nutritious varieties to produce offspring with even higher levels of iron and zinc – a process known as biofortification.

Thanks to the project “Biodiverse and nutritious potato improvement across Peru, Nepal and Bhutan,” funded by the European Community, CIP and partners have begun sharing those biofortified potatoes with smallholder farmers like Azorsa. In 2016, CIP shared seed tubers of 17 biofortified clones with the Peruvian nonprofit Grupo Yanapai for testing with smallholders in four communities in the Yauli district of Huancavelica.

According to the Peruvian government’s 2015 Demographic and Family Health Survey (ENDES for its name in Spanish), Huancavelica is the region of Peru with the highest rate of malnutrition in children five years or younger – one third suffer chronic malnutrition and 40 percent are anemic. Malnutrition is also a common among women of reproductive age in the region. Yanapai has thus complemented its promotion of biofortified potatoes with nutrition education, teaching local women how to improve their family’s diet by establishing vegetable gardens and ensuring that children eat enough animal based foods such as eggs.

“We need to feed our children well,” said Azorsa. She explained that her two-year-old daughter, Luz, is already eating the biofortified potatoes, adding that they taste good. “We like these potatoes very much because they protect us and our children against diseases.”

Raul Ccanto, Yanapai’s coordinator for biodiversity and culture, explained that it has been easy to get local families to grow and eat the biofortified potatoes because their flavor, texture and colors are similar to those of the native potatoes they traditionally cultivate. He added that his only concern is that they’ve become so popular that families may eat too much of their harvests and not save enough seed tubers for planting.

CIP biologist and nutritionist Gabriela Burgos with children from one of the four indigenous Quechua communities that are growing and evaluating the biofortified potatoes. Photo: T. zum Felde/CIP.

CIP biologist and nutritionist Gabriela Burgos explained that the biofortified potatoes being grown in Huancavelica have between 40 and 80 percent more iron and zinc than the varieties commonly consumed in that region. While they aren’t a silver bullet, she said that biofortified potatoes can make a significant contribution to reducing anemia and malnutrition, especially since they contain high levels of vitamin C, which facilitates the absorption of zinc and iron. She stressed that those biofortified potatoes are the work of a multidisciplinary team and that they are intermediate products of a long-term effort, since CIP’s potato breeders continue crossing them to develop varieties with even higher levels of iron and zinc, as well as resistance to biotic and abiotic stresses that are becoming more intense under climate change.

While enjoying the health benefits of eating those nutritious tubers, farmers in Huancavelica have participated in a selection process that should lead to the official release of one or more biofortified varieties in Peru that could eventually be consumed by tens of thousands of Andean families. In 2017, the farmers selected the best six of the 17 clones they sowed in 2016 and planted them when the seasonal rains began in November of 2017. CIP scientists conducted lab analyses of those six clones to ensure that they’ve maintained their levels of zinc, iron and antioxidants. When participating farmers harvest them in late May of 2018, they will complete the process by selecting one or two biofortified clones that CIP and Yanapai will then recommended to Peru’s National Institute for Agricultural Innovation (INIA) for official release as new potato varieties.

“Together with the men and women farmers, we are working toward the release of a new, biofortified variety, because that is the only way we can expand the cultivation of these potatoes across more communities,” Ccanto said.

Burgos noted that participatory varietal selection is key to ensuring that varieties released have the characteristics that local farmers want, which increases the likelihood of adoption. “We want this to be sustainable, that enough farmers grow these potatoes, because the process of developing them has been very long,” she said.

Raul Ccanto, of Grupo Yanapai, prepares farmers for participatory varietal selection, which helps them chose the best biofortified potatoes for their region.

The experience with farmers in Huancavelica bodes well for widespread acceptance of the biofortified potatoes. Azorsa, for example, explained that she is growing seven of the biofortified potato clones on her farm, adding that ‘From now on, I’m only going to plant biofortified varieties.”

Her neighbor Octavia Voza Castilla, a 31–year-old mother of three, explained that she and her husband are growing all of the 17 biofortified varieties that CIP delivered in 2016, as well as 30 native potato varieties that they’ve’ always cultivated. She also grows lettuce, onions, carrots and other vegetables in her backyard garden.

“I am very happy that I’m able to feed my children these biofortified potatoes,” she said. “My children used to get sick often, but now they don’t get sick as much as before, and they’ve gained weight.”

Burgos explained that CIP has shared some of the biofortified potato clones with partners in Ethiopia, Rwanda and Kenya, where they are undergoing participatory selection by farmers of the highlands of those countries. At the same time, Amorós and colleagues have crossed biofortified native potatoes with potatoes from CIP’s advanced breeding populations to produce biofortified potatoes with higher yields, wider adaptation, resistance to late blight and virus diseases and other desirable traits. This year, CIP partnered with INIA to begin field trails on that second set of biofortified potatoes.

“We are pioneers in the biofortification of potato,” observed Amorós. “We’ve accomplished a lot, but we need to continue increasing the micronutrient levels and other desirable characteristics in these potatoes.” He added that two or three selection cycles should result in improved potato varieties with optimal levels of iron and zinc.

Burgos said that she is proud to be a member of the team that has brought potato biofortification to this point, moving it from a purely scientific endeavor to one that is beginning to benefit people in rural areas with high levels of malnutrition.

 “To think that these potatoes can help many children and women to improve their nutrition and quality of life makes me happy,” she said.

Biofortified potatoes can help to reduce anemia and malnutrition, which have serious consequences for the health of children and women of reproductive age.

Gabriela Burgos, nutritious native potatoes