While the potential effects of climate change on agricultural outputs may vary, a great deal of investigation and research is being directed towards finding solutions to feeding the world’s population amid rising global temperatures. The potato is unequivocally one of the world’s most important food crops, and climate change, however varied, signals huge implications to the continued production of this life-sustaining crop.
It could be argued that no one better understands the potato than Alberto Salas – an agronomist working for the International Potato Center (CIP). Often referred to as El Padrino de la Papa or the Potato Godfather, Salas has been studying potato varieties and distribution for almost 50 years. During this time he has collected an astounding array of wild potato germplasm and has walked from Canada to Patagonia performing fieldwork collections and studies. While Salas was conducting potato-related research in the Peruvian Andes in the 1980s, the Shining Path (a Maoist terrorist group) detained him five consecutive times. Potato-collecting injuries include a broken neck and a badly broken arm, for which he is still unable to turn his head or use his left arm to eat.
By all accounts, Alberto Salas has dedicated his life to the potato. When he talks about his passion, people listen; and he is adamant that the potato will not only survive climate change, but will help us to survive it as well.
When scientifically assessing the impacts of climate change on potato production, the following four factors need to be taken into account. They are: temperature, an increase in pests and diseases, water supply, and increased carbon levels in the atmosphere – all of which result from global warming. Having evaluated these factors, some scientists believe that climate change may severely curb global potato production; Alberto Salas however, believes the opposite is true. He advocates that, “One of the greatest aspects of the potato is its wide adaptability. It can grow in any climate and I believe that above all other food crops, the potato will be able to feed the world when nothing else can.”
Traditionally the growth of spuds is affected by night temperatures of over 25° Celsius. With international experts predicting global rises in temperatures of 1.1° to 6.4° Celsius over the next 50 years, it could be argued that many areas around the world where the potato is currently harvested will be unable to support the crop in the future. High temperatures have been shown to slow tuber growth and reproduction, increase physiological damage to tubers and shorten tuber dormancy, which makes the tubers sprout too early. Alberto Salas signals that it may be necessary to shift growing areas as a result of increased temperatures, moving further north or south and to higher altitudes where the potato can be more comfortably grown. However, he points out that, “Even this can probably be avoided by growing potato cultivars more resilient to heat that are currently being developed, grown, and tested by CIP.”
Warmer weather could also allow aphids, insects and pathogens to spread to areas that were traditionally too cold for them. It could therefore be argued that any increase in global temperatures will lead to an increase in potato pests and diseases. However, shifting potato growing areas and using genetically improved cultivars, argues Salas, could help to avoid increased threats from pests and diseases. He furthermore points to the practice of intercropping with mashua, another Andean tuber, as an effective means of pest control. Mashua is incredibly easy to grow. It thrives on marginal soils, and it is well known for its insecticidal qualities.
Rising temperatures are not the only implications of global climate change that could affect potato production. Water availability will undoubtedly play a large role in the security of the crop in years to come. Areas that receive a lot of water now may experience long periods of drought in the future, and vice-versa. Extreme weather events, already a reality, are expected to further increase as climate change progresses. Although potato is currently grown with constant irrigation, changing weather patterns in different areas around the world may stress and greatly affect potato crops. Alberto Salas warns scientific skeptics who use this argument to signal the end of potato production at the hands of global warming to take into account that, “the potato requires far less water to grow than the world’s other major crops – wheat, maize, and rice. If grown with care, the potato can grow with very little water, or in an abundance of water.”
Climate change will also affect the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and while this may spell disaster for other crops, it is likely to benefit potato production. Increased CO2 in the atmosphere will increase the photosynthetic rates of the potato, which, in turn, will result in a higher rate of growth. This will be even more notable with sweetpotato, which may double in size as a result of climate change according to research undertaken at the University of Hawaii at Manao.
Alberto Salas claims he is not overly frightened by the potential impacts of climate change on potato farming. “Even more than the incredible adaptability of the potato,” says Salas, “one should take into account its enormous diversity.” CIP has identified more than 4300 different varieties of edible potato along with almost 180 different species of wild potato. While these wild potato species are too bitter to eat, their important biodiversity includes natural resistance to pests, diseases, and climatic conditions. More than 7000 potato accessions are safeguarded in CIP’s Genebank, where scientists work towards offering the world ever more resilient varieties of potato for cultivation. The benefits of having such a large diversity of potato are considerable, and it is this diversity, claims Salas, which scientists at CIP are harnessing in order to safeguard the future of the potato amid the world’s current conditions of climatic uncertainty.