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Preserving Potato Biodiversity

The Kawsay Potato  : A Peruvian farmer holding the Kawsay potato, a late blight resistant, experimental cultivar  (Photo: International Potato Center)

The Kawsay Potato: A Peruvian farmer holding the Kawsay potato, a late blight resistant, experimental cultivar (Photo: International Potato Center)

Safeguarding the genetic diversity of as many potatoes as possible—in the lab and on the field—will secure the world’s potato supply for years to come.

The International Potato Center (CIP), a seed bank in Peru with the world’s largest potato crop collection, is preserving more than 4,000 varieties of potatoes and making those varieties available to plant breeders.

Established and managed by six indigenous Quechua communities, Parque de la Papa (Potato Park) is a paragon of in situ conservation. Covering over 10,000 hectares of land in Peru’s Sacred Valley of the Incas, the communities steward over 1,000 potato cultivars.

The CIP and the Potato Park work together to study how potato varieties change and adapt in the field over time. This work supports plant breeders around the globe, who rely on the CIP and Potato Park’s potato collection to discover traits for disease resistance, flavor, and nutrition. In short, a diverse collection of potatoes provides the genetic stock that will create the next generation of potatoes that are better for people and planet.

 

The Irish Potato Famine

the importance of biodiversity

In the 19th century, Ireland’s potato crop was decimated by Late Blight disease. At the time, Ireland was heavily dependent on a single potato variety as its staple food, which meant there was no genetic biodiversity to protect the total destruction of the crop by a disease.

More than 1 million people starved to death and more than 1.5 million fled the country, largely because the lack of potato biodiversity made the crop highly susceptible to this blight.

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The Russet & Yukon Gold

Descended from South America

The Russet Burbank and Yukon Gold potato varieties represent the majority of all potato sales in the United States, with the Russet alone representing 70% of the potato market.

These ubiquitous varieties were bred to resist diseases like the Late Blight that caused the Irish Potato Famine. Each have lineages that trace back to South America. It is the hope that today’s South American seed banks can lead to the next big potato, one that’s functional, strong, and tasty.

 
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Creating the Next Generation Potato

Today, potato breeders are tapping into this biodiverse library of over 4,000 potato cultivars to prevent events like the Irish Potato Famine from happening again.

Breeders do this by cross-breeding the genetics of thousands of different potato varieties to develop new potatoes that can withstand pests and disease, as well as better acclimate to climate change and sub-optimal growing conditions.

Biodiversity Can Create Resilience and Deliciousness

Plant breeders at Cornell and the University of Wisconsin are engaging chefs, farmers, and the general public to develop better tasting potatoes that are also more resilient to disease.

Chef Dan Barber’s Row 7 Seeds company has developed a new potato variety called the “Upstate Abundance Potato.” This creamy, nutty, buttery potato came from efforts to create a high-yielding, disease resistant potato, but also happened to be an utterly delicious potato.

(Photo: International Potato Center)