Conserving Potato Agrobiodiversity: Top-Down, Bottom-Up Approach Looks Toward Sustainability

By Ajit Jha on February 15, 2014 5:59 PM EST

potatoes
With over 4,000 different kinds of potatoes in this world, one researcher has developed a way to make sure they remain sustainable. (Photo: Red Moon Sanctuary, CC BY 2.0)

Although potatoes are widely popular in the U.S., only a limited number of potato varieties are grown in North America. Compare that to where they originated, in South America, there are over 5,000 varieties. Penn State researcher Karl Zimmerer is doing all he can to gather information on the agrobiodiversity of the crop, with the hopes of finding what's needed for sustainability.

"In the U.S., we rely primarily on 10 to 12 types of potatoes total," said Zimmerer, department head and professor of geography at Penn State, in a press release. "In fact, mostly we use only five to eight varieties. In South America, by contrast, there are 74 different types of potatoes in a single field. The fields, tubers, and landscapes are visually stunning."

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Zimmerer's extensive knowledge of agrobiodiversity spans over 20 years. After first studying diversity in individual potato fields, he then began to study communities - with experts in over 150 different varieties of potato - and landscapes. "People in Peru, for example, love to eat potatoes and think that theirs are vastly superior to what we have in flavor, texture, starchiness, and color," Zimmerer said. While Peruvians value their potatoes for high agrobiodiversity, we value them for "nutritional, ecological, and other conservation advantages."

Zimmerer's major focus is on identifying agrobiodiversity hotspots that are environmentally and socio-economically threatened, and devising ways to protect these areas to conserve the crops. He expects to present his novel approach to conservation at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago this weekend. He calls his approach "top-down" and "bottom-up."

"There are 4,000 to 5,000 different varieties of potato in Chile, Colombia, Northern Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela," Zimmerer said in the release. "Up until now, the areas where varieties grow were just designated as large, undifferentiated shapes on the map. In order to support agrobiodiversity, we have to have an idea of large-area agrobiodiversity concentrations, so we have to look from the top down."

The top-down approach identifies and analyzes agrobiodiveristy across regions, including global institutions like the International Potato Center in Peru. These are the areas of concentrated agrobiodiversity. In addition, the top-down approach will also make use of potato experts, who have long histories of geographically extensive work. Peruvian Alberto Salas, for instance, has extensive geographic and agrobiodiversity knowledge spanning 60 years in different potato growing regions from Chile to Venezuela, Zimmerer said. There are many other experts from Europe and North America.

With help from experts, Zimmerer is creating a database of potato hotspot locations on both Google Earth and paper maps. The database will also include slope, elevation, and socio-economic characteristics of the hotspots, as well as compare the information from the various experts. The approach will gather information on agrobiodiveristy that may otherwise be beyond the knowledge of local farmers trying to keep track of potatoes growing in their vicinity.  

"The local farmers generally identify their potatoes on their culinary properties and uses - floury, soup making, or freeze drying," Zimmerer said in the release. "Interestingly, the culinary uses correspond to the elevations where the potatoes grow - soup potatoes have the lowest elevation, floury potatoes in mid elevation, and freezing potatoes are the highest."

Compiling information from the actual farmers, and combining it with geographic information, visualization, and top-down image analysis can have a huge positive impact on sustainability and conservation.

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