The Colorful Value of Potatoes

I often wonder why people tend to laugh about the potato and why it seems to have negative associations, – while this doesn’t happen with cereals or other staple crops. Nobody wants to be called a “couch potato” or a “potato head”. It’s also commonly and wrongly believed that eating potatoes leads to severe weight gain; while in Germany the proverb: “The most stupid farmers harvest the biggest potatoes” means something like “dumb people are often very lucky and no real skills are necessary to succeed.”

In the Andean region of South America, people view the potato differently because their lives have depended on the tuber for thousands of years. The uniqueness of the South American potato genepool lies not only in the co-existence of wild potato relatives with important enduring traits such as disease- and pest-resistance, or drought- and frost-tolerance. It is also found in the nutritional value of potatoes, which differs depending on the colors.

Thanks to the continued cultivation and consumption by Andean potato growers (‘custodian farmers’) these characteristics have not been lost. Unfortunately, these practices have not been acknowledged by “modern” society and there have been few opportunities for the custodian farmers to contribute actively to rural development approaches with their rich knowledge. Regions with the highest potato diversity are also the economically poorest areas with few prospects to offer the local youth.

“Chirapaq Ñan”, the rainbow route

Chirapaq Ñan, Quechua for ‘rainbow route’, was launched in 2012, as a collaborative effort of CIP’s Genetic Resources and a multitude of public and private stakeholders from the Andean countries. It aims to monitor long-term in situ conservation of potato landraces and to establish a knowledge network of custodian farmers across diversity hotspots from Colombia to Chiloe Island.

The hotspots of Chirapaq Ñan are a geographically limited area that currently contains unique potato landrace diversity. The different hotspots contain distinct potato gene pools with very specific biological characteristics. The following criteria determine whether the hotspot is included into the Chirapaq Ñan Initiative: (i) Distributional range of the species cultivated; (ii) Degree of endemism of the grown varieties; (iii) Geographic distance between the hotspots; (iv) Cultural diversity in and among the hotspots; (v) Local interest in conservation, in addition to the presence of national partners to take on leadership; (vi) Presence of any factors that are a threat to conservation efforts.

Potato custodian farmers from Huancavelica, Peru
Potato custodian farmers from Huancavelica, Peru

Monitoring potato in situ needs to take place at different levels in view of the output of complex interactions among genes/alleles, environment and socio-cultural aspects and decisions. In situ conservationists are not necessarily interested in a specific variety but rather in keeping the dynamics and evolution of new traits and adaptation processes in the genepool. Chirapaq Ñan seeks to answer how much diversity is necessary to safeguard a healthy genepool with its capacity to adapt to changes. The specific levels at which monitoring occurs are: Level 1) Genes, Alleles, and Chromosomes; Level 2) Cultivar and Species; Level 3) Landscape and Spatial Dynamics; Level 4) Collective Knowledge; Level 5) Threats to Diversity – Factors of Change.

The rainbow symbolizes the bridge between different points which are locations, custodian farmers, partner institutions, and disciplines involved in monitoring plant genetic resources in situ. The rainbow colors reflect the richness of the cultural, knowledge, genetic and morphological diversity that one encounters in the Andes. The rainbow itself is the result of interaction among different (and also contrasting) elements standing for agricultural reality in communities, rural development and education, decision-making processes and scientific approaches of conservationists, as well interaction among in situ and ex situ research. All these different disciplines work together, resulting in Chirapaq Ñan.

Chirapaq Ñan’s contribution to sustainable development goals

Chirapaq Ñan seeks to reduce inequality within and among countries by showing and communicating evidence of the important services custodians provide to society with their monitoring and conservation activities. By linking aspects of agrobiodiversity management and collective knowledge — highly relevant for local reality in Andean communities — to education in primary and secondary schools, we give the youth a chance to be part of Chirapaq Ñan; and life-long learning opportunities will be provided.

The improved participatory monitoring of potato diversity will help us to understand the evolutionary processes and to red-list varieties that help prevent the loss of traits, essential for achieving food security and improved nutrition. Particularly in the context of agrobiodiversity, women play a critical role because they often manage the seed storage and are responsible for food preparation and the well-being of a farming family. Their knowledge will be a central point of Chirapaq Ñan, and promoting their expertise is one of the initiative’s priorities.

As we are building this ‘rainbow route’, we keep in mind the Sicilian proverb that says ‘Cu mancia patate un more mai’ (‘Potato-eaters never die’).

Blogpost and photo by Severin Polreich, Associate Scientist – Global Program
Genetic Resources, International Potato Center (CIP) – s.polreich(at)
With the help of Kathleen Preissing – CIP Communications Department