NEW YORK: The United Nations today officially launches International Year of the Potato 2008, an initiative mocked in private by some diplomats but enabling governments to raise much-needed funds for agricultural research.
The move to increase awareness of the importance of the potato as a food in developing nations was proposed by the UN s Rome-based Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and adopted by the General Assembly in 2005.
Throughout 2008, the International Year of the Potato (IYP) will seek to underline the humble spud s role in improving food security and poverty alleviation.
For us diplomats these international years of … are of minor importance compared to resolutions concerning conflicts, or world diplomacy. But we cannot turn down proposals from specialist agencies, said a UN official who asked not to be identified.
Strict rules limiting a country s possibility of requesting an international year of … were introduced recently, he added.
There was the international year of rice , an international year of mountains , now the Italians are trying to promote an international year of astronomy. We jump from one thing to another, he said.
But with the world population due to grow by around 100 million people a year over the next two decades, 95 percent of that increase in the developing world, the stakes are high.
The potato, rich in vitamin C and potassium, can help reduce fatal malnutrition.
While consumption of potatoes has decreased in Europe, it has doubled over the last 40 years in developing numbers, though the total remains less than a quarter of that in Europe.
In less than two decades, China has become the world s top potato producer, ahead of Russia, Europe and the US, traditionally the biggest producers and consumers of the tuber.
Indeed, of the 315 million tons produced yearly, 162 million, or more than half, are now farmed in developing nations. China and India alone produce a third of the world s potatoes.
Research is vital to battle mutating diseases, said Thomas Gass, a Swiss diplomat trained as an agricultural engineer. The Great Irish Famine, he recalled, which decimated the country in the middle of the 19th century, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to emigrate, was caused by a fungus from Mexico that contaminated the potato, then the hungry country s staple food.
The private sector is not interested in this type of low-profit research, he said. The UN s high-profile backing is vital to raise awareness amid public organizations.
Following the IYP s New York launch this week, the solanum tuberosum will be on the menu of a score of conferences, from the 7th African Potato Association Conference in Alexandria, Egypt, at the end of this month, to the Global Potato Conference in New Delhi in December 2008 … and not forgetting the Europatat Conference in Bern, Switzerland, next May. Agence France-Presse