In May 2017, indigenous farmers from five rural communities in the Yauli district of the Huancavelica region in Peru, harvested their fields with 17 potato clones with increased levels of iron and zinc, developed by the CIP as part of their mission to reduce malnutrition. While their families ended up consuming most of those colorful potatoes, the farmers kept the tubers of the collectively determined seven best clones, to sow when the rains resumed in November. This was part of a participatory varietal selection process, to choose the best candidates to be released as new varieties in Peru, based on the opinions of farmers and consumers.
These potatoes are the result of almost 15 years of work by CIP and its local partners. The process began with the laboratory analysis of approximately 200 native Andean varieties, of which 16 were identified with relatively high levels of iron, zinc and vitamin C. Then, CIP breeders spent a decade crossing those nutritious potatoes and selecting descendant clones with even higher levels of iron and zinc, a process known as biofortification. The resulting clones have between 40 and 80 percent more iron and zinc than commonly seeded varieties, which means that they have the potential to make a significant contribution to reduce micronutrient deficiency malnutrition.
An estimated 1.6 billion people worldwide suffer from iron and zinc deficiency, especially infants and women of childbearing age, and severe cases can cause stunted child growth, hinder mental development, increase susceptibility to infections and maternal mortality. According to a study by the Peruvian government, one third of children under five in the Huancavelica region suffer from chronic micronutrient malnutrition and 40 percent have anemia. Malnutrition is also common among women of reproductive age in that region.
With the support of the European Union and the CGIAR Trust Fund, through the A4NH and RTB research programs, the CIP has been able to create biofortified potatoes for farmers in the highlands of Peru and other countries where malnutrition is common due to lack of micronutrients. For Gabriela Burgos, biologist and CIP nutritionist, “these potatoes have great potential to reduce anemia because they also contain high levels of vitamin C, which facilitates iron absorption, and low levels of phytates, which inhibit iron absorption “
The CIP partnered with the Grupo Yanapai, a Peruvian non-profit organization, to coordinate the participatory varietal selection of biofortified potatoes by Huancavelica farmers. In addition, they provided nutritional education in order for local families to diversify their diets, a strategy frequently used by the CIP and its partners. The executive director of Grupo Yanapai, Maria Scurrah, indicates that local women have begun to cultivate vegetable gardens and now feed their children with more animal proteins. She points out that these families eat a lot of potatoes and that they like biofortified clones because they look and taste the same as the native varieties they grow traditionally.
Alicia Azorsa, who planted the seven selected varieties on her small farm in the town of Castillapata, Huancavelica, says that she and her daughter Luz eat them daily. “We really like these potatoes because they protect our children and us against diseases. They are also delicious, ” she says with a smile.
CIP scientist Thomas zum Felde says that the center along with its local partners have also organized the participatory varietal selection of biofortified potato clones with farmers from Ethiopia and Rwanda, and that the CIP is working with its partners in Bhutan and Nepal to create the same kind of potatoes. He adds that although these small and colorful clones are very different from the potatoes grown in Africa and Asia, the African farmers who have tried them, liked the potatoes. In addition, the CIP is developing more regional partners in Africa and Asia to carry out laboratory analyzes of iron and zinc levels, in preparation for incorporating biofortified potatoes in breeding programs and scaling efforts in those regions.
While biofortified potatoes, currently grown by farmers, are quite nutritious, they have lower yields and are less resistant than other varieties. CIP breeders have spent the last six years crossing them with relatives of advanced CIP breeding populations, which has resulted in a new population of biofortified clones with much higher yields, as well as resistance to late blight and various diseases. Field trials in several locations and the participatory varietal selection of this second set of biofortified clones began in Peru at the end of 2017, in collaboration with the National Institute of Agrarian Innovation, and should take two or three years. As a result a variety will be released at the national level. In-vitro plants of these clones have also been sent to Ethiopia, Rwanda, Bhutan and Nepal to be tested locally.
“We are pioneers in potato biofortification,” notes Walter Amorós, CIP potato improver. “We have accomplished a lot, but we need to continue to increase micronutrient levels and other desirable characteristics of these potatoes.”
Donors: European Union, CGIAR Trust Fund contributors through the CGIAR Research Programs in Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) and Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH) and HarvestPlus
Countries: Peru, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Bhutan, Nepal