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Potatoes and climate change

As the fourth most important food crop after rice, wheat and maize, potatoes are of invaluable importance for the diets and livelihoods of millions of people worldwide. On the occasion of the International Year of the Potato, this issue of InfoResources Focus takes a look at the challenges that climate change poses to agriculture, and more specifically, to potato farming.

The report discusses the impact of global temperature rises, higher carbon dioxide atmospheric concentration and higher disease and pest pressure on the potato and its wild relatives. It reviews the policy options for agriculture and highlights the need for concrete action, presenting three scenarios available to farmers for reacting to the changing conditions: abandonment of production, expansion into new areas, and adaptation of production. 

Main points include:

  • despite the numerous model calculations and projections, little is known about climate change and its impact on agriculture – time will show how potatoes will actually react to the changing climatic conditions
  • farmers who are cultivating potatoes in regions where conditions are critical even today, may no longer be able to do so a few years from now. They will have to find other crops or engage in off-farm activities; most of them will be forced to adapt
  • at the policy level, mainstreaming climate change into national programmes and strategies is highly important as a prerequisite for timely assessment of vulnerabilities, as well as planning and implementation of measures
  •  in agriculture, and particularly in potato production, much depends on successful breeding of new varieties. If researchers succeed in breeding more stress resistant varieties that produce sufficient yields even under changed conditions, potatoes will continue to be able to be grown in many regions in the future
  • potatoes have a higher water productivity than rice, wheat and maize, therefore as water stress increases, potatoes will become increasingly important in terms of food and income security in the future

The paper concludes by asserting that, given the potato’s high productivity per unit of land and time and value, as both a staple and a cash crop, increasing stress tolerance in the potato means that the crop has a great potential to: contribute to food and income security, mitigate poverty, and reduce farmers’ risk in vulnerable agricultural environments.