Potatoes!

The New York Times recently carried an article on how the world can be saved by potatoes. But I much prefer the seasoned scepticism of Joan Obra, who wrote this article a month or two back, in the Fresno Bee (despite my toe-curling metaphor choice at the end of the article).


Potatoes: They’re good for you

By Joan Obra

In Ireland, you’d simmer them in a soup called anraith prátaí. In Peru, you’d make ensalada de papas, or potato salad. And in Kenya, you’d mash them with peas and maize in a dish known as irio.

In short, you can make a lot of dishes — and feed a lot of people — with one of the world’s leading staple foods.

That’s the point made by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which sees the potato as one healthy and cheap way to feed a growing population amid skyrocketing food prices. It deemed 2008 the International Year of the Potato and launched an extensive campaign to promote the tuber.

Campaign events include the Lincolnshire Sausage and Potato Festival in the United Kingdom and the eighth World Festival of Sautéed Potatoes in northern Slovenia. Then there’s the International Symposium on Living With Potatoes at California State University, Fresno — the last U.S. event linked to the 2008 campaign.

The symposium helps publicize efforts to create a potato sustainability research center at Fresno State, says Nitaigour Premchand Mahalik, coordinator of the symposium and an assistant professor in Fresno State’s Department of Industrial Technology. Donations to the symposium would help nonprofits buy potatoes for the poor and pay for other activities supporting the International Year of the Potato cam- paign.

The symposium, which drew more than 120 attendees Tuesday, underscored the need for a larger potato supply. The U.N. estimates that more than 2 billion people will be born during the next 20 years.

“The time has come to do more scientific research in order to meet the demand,” Mahalik says.

Tuesday’s event fell in line with much of the U.N.’s message.

Speakers’ topics included ways to improve soil on potato farms, boost potatoes’ disease resistance and preserve potato varieties.

The symposium also touted the potato’s benefits. Its high content of vitamin C, potassium and dietary fiber make it a healthy food — as long as folks skip the large cartons of french fries or bags of potato chips.

“We just don’t need the whole big serving,” says Lisa Herzig, the dietetic program director of Fresno State’s Department of Food Science and Nutrition. Instead of high-fat potato products, she advises choosing a small baked potato topped with salsa or low-fat sour cream.

Klaus Tenbergen, an assistant professor of culinary science at Fresno State, showed other healthy ways to eat potatoes. He mixed mashed potatoes with blanched apple pieces to make the German dish himmel und erde.

“It is nice to have another serving of fruit,” Tenbergen says.

And he created a version of Duchess potatoes by rolling cold, mashed potatoes between his palms, coaxing the mound into a small pear shape.

After rolling the molded potato in bread crumbs, he chose to bake it — a healthier cooking method than deep- frying.

Tenbergen finished off the mock pear with a bay leaf and a broken spaghetti strand for a stem. “It is an upscale version of a croquette,” he says.

Unfortunately, all this advice to eat healthy potato dishes likely won’t change people’s eating habits. The U.N. says fewer folks cook fresh potatoes; instead, more people eat potatoes in fast food, snacks and convenience products.

This trend, well-established in rich countries such as the United States, is spreading to developing countries. And that creates an ironic situation for the U.N.: It advises farmers to sell potatoes to the fast-food and snack industries, which transforms this healthy food into products nutritionists dislike. An example is the Nyabyumba United Farmers group, which grows potatoes for fries in fast-food eateries of Kampala, the capital of Ugan- da.

“This isn’t the best use for potatoes,” says Raj Patel, author of “Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System,” (Melville House, $19.95). “It’s the way of getting the least possible nutrition out of them.”

Patel believes corporate control of the food supply simultaneously starves 800 million people and creates 1 billion overweight folks. His view is relevant to the processed-potato problem. With companies creating food products that are addictive and convenient, it’s hard for the fresh potato to compete.

“Food system corporations are merely providing the sugar, salt, fat and flesh that everybody wants to eat — or so they claim,” Patel writes.

He also advocates programs that support poor, small-scale farmers, as long as they control the land. When more farmers sell potatoes in local markets, it strengthens an area’s food supply and leaves people less dependent on expensive imported products.

Indeed, this is why the U.N. likes potatoes. The tubers are sold mostly within the country in which they’re grown, so they’re often less expensive than staples such as rice, maize and wheat. (These grains are globally traded commodities and suffer from more food inflation due to poor harvests, high transportation costs and demand from the biofuels industry.)

In the end, however, eradicating hunger depends on many factors other than the potato.

“It’s a little odd to have a particular vegetable or particular anything present itself as the way out of poverty for farmers in the developing world,” Patel says. “The potato is just one vegetable in the whole salad that will lift people out of poverty.”