So here’s the thing about potatoes: there are a lot of them in Peru.
There are gnarled potatoes and smooth potatoes. There are red potatoes and blue potatoes. There are certain potatoes that are eaten only at lunch and others that are eaten only at dinner. There are potatoes for birthdays and potatoes to make people fall in love. There’s one potato that prospective brides have to peel to prove themselves to their mothers-in-law (potato-peeling ability being a major qualification for marriage in certain Andean towns).
Peru is the birthplace of the potato, and Peruvian farmers grow more than 2000 different types. (Who’s counting, you may ask? The International Potato Center, among others). But this staggering diversity is under threat as farmers transition towards high-yield, market-friendly varieties.
Last week, I got the chance to visit the Potato Park—which is not, as the name suggests, a potato-themed amusement park. (Disappointing, right? Imagine the possibilities!)
That said, it’s pretty amazing in its own right. In 2004, a group of six villages in the mountains above Cuzco decided to begin working together to preserve the native potato varieties already being cultivated in their fields. The farmers now avoid all chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and have been vocal opponents of transgenic crops. In many cases, they still cultivate their fields with foot plows.
Native potatoes “can’t be produced by the ton,” said Lino Mora, who directs the park’s tourism program. “They aren’t sold...they’re for eating”.
The residents of the park have turned that into an asset by making their villages into destinations for agro-ecotourism. Tourists come to the park to learn about the potatoes and sample some truly delicious meals. (I had potato soup, followed by potato pancakes and potato puree). Farmers from other parts of Peru also come to swap varieties and learn more about conservation work.
As a result, the Potato Park is now a vital storehouse of genetic diversity, with 778 different kinds of potato grown within its boundaries. That diversity will help future farmers adapt to fluctuations in climate.There are varieties that are especially resistant to sun, for instance, and others than can tolerate hard frosts.
Farmers from the park have sent potato seeds to the “Noah’s Ark” seed bank in Svalbard, Norway. Similar efforts are underway elsewhere in Peru. The Ministry of Agriculture in Cuzco, for instance, is trying to cross low-yield, drought-resistant potatoes with high-yield, conventional ones, in part to help adapt to a changing climate.
As I’ve learned over the past two weeks, adaptation is rarely glamorous. After all, what could be less exciting than a potato? But dealing with climate change isn’t about big ideas or fancy slogans. It’s about finding things that work in a particular place for a particular problem. In some cases, that means potatoes—nothing more and nothing less.