Notes to broadcasters
This script is about understanding and respecting local wisdom and the local practices that are based on that wisdom. Some indigenous crops become central to the culture and survival of a community of people. The way that a community of people cultivates, stores and propagates that crop is an important part of conserving plant biodiversity. This script is about the relationship between the potato and some of its cultivators.
Other suggestions for radio programs about the importance of local crops.
- One community, or one family’s relationship with a plant or animal over time.
- The origin, history and spread of important local crops, including grain crops, tree fruits, vegetables, and medicinal plants.
- Local crops used in religious rituals. How these rituals can play an important role in conserving plant biological diversity, especially if endangered plants are used.
- Indigenous methods of seed storage and how they contribute to the conservation of plant genetic resources.
Greetings to all the listeners tuning in to the show. Today we’re going to talk about the history of the potato. And who better to speak than the potato himself?! The potato is going to talk to us about the importance of local knowledge and practices. These practices are often passed down to us through many generations. For example, some people cultivate and process potatoes today in much the same way as their ancestors did so many years ago.
Now over to our guest. Dear friend, please introduce yourself and tell us where you are from.
Greetings to all. Yes, I am the potato! I was first grown high in the Andes Mountains in South America about 9000 years ago. But now I live almost everywhere on earth. In fact, I am grown in 148 countries!
Yes, you are very popular – I’m sure most of our listeners know you. Can you tell us about your birth and childhood?
I was born in South America. A group of people called the Aymara people were the first to grow me. They lived on the shores of a large lake, called Lake Titicaca, in South America. The Aymara people found wild potatoes growing all around, and began to plant them in their fields. In fact, you can still find wild potatoes around Lake Titicaca – one is called the ‘fox potato’. You might say that that the fox potato is my great-great-great grandparent. But we potatoes looked very different in those days! We were small then, only about the size of a plum.
So the Aymara people found potatoes growing wild and began to cultivate them. Was it difficult to grow potatoes so high in the mountains?
It was very cold and dry up on the high plateau where I was born. But the Aymara farmers were very creative. They dug canals and used the soil that they removed from the canals to make raised fields. Then they planted me in the raised fields. The water in the canals kept the soil slightly wet even when the weather was very dry. The canal water also helped to stop the soil from freezing.
That was creative! How did the Aymara people prepare and process you?
Well, a lot of the time they dried me, and stored me to eat later. First, they left me in the ground until I froze. Then they dug me up, and trampled on me to squeeze out the water until I was shattered into little bits.
Next they dried me – all the little bits of me – in the sun. Then they stored me in cold underground storage areas – they could keep me there for 10 years if they wanted! When they were ready to eat me, they took me out of the cold storage areas, ground me into flour, and made bread from me. And I should tell you that today, in present times, the Aymara people still cultivate, process and store me in much the same way. We have a very special relationship!
Okay, so now we know a bit about your relationship with the Aymara people. They were the first to grow you and they found all sorts of interesting ways to store and use you. And today, so many years later, you are still with them. Are there any other people or cultures that you had a special relationship with?
Oh yes. I have enjoyed good relationships with many different communities and cultures.
I was VERY popular with the Inca people. They lived in South America hundreds of years after the Aymara people. I don’t mean to sound too proud, but I was at the very center of the Inca culture.
At the center of their culture?! Were you really THAT important?
Oh yes. I mean, the Incas had potato gods! They made pottery shaped like potatoes. They rubbed me on the skin of sick patients, and used me to help women in childbirth. I was everywhere! Their language has more than one thousand words to describe potatoes and potato varieties.
Wow – that’s a real potato culture! There’s one more thing I want to ask you – but please don’t be offended.
Please….go ahead and ask. I’m quite tough and hardy.
I’ve seen white and yellow potatoes. But you are a blue potato!
Well, yes. I come in every colour of the rainbow! White, yellow, red, blue, black, orange, purple, pink … and in every shape and size! I can be small, large, bumpy, round, smooth, thin or thick. And we potatoes have many different tastes – all good of course!
You must be proud to be from a family with so many attractive and delicious varieties.
Yes I am, although I am troubled by some things these days. But maybe we shouldn’t go into that now…(sounding sad)
Well yes, please go on…we still have time. Especially if something is bothering you.
Well, even though there are thousands of kinds of potatoes all over the world, many of the old varieties – the ones that have been around for so many generations – are being lost.
Why is that a problem for you?
Let me give you an example to show you why this is a problem. In the Andes mountains where I was born, farmers grow over 200 species of potatoes, and 5,000 varieties. To the people of these mountains, different types of potatoes are as different as the meat from a pig and a chicken. They eat one kind of potato for breakfast, another for lunch, and a third for dinner! Of course when potatoes are this important it is very good for our survival.
But in some places in the world, only a few varieties are being grown. This can cause BIG problems. Did you ever hear about the Irish potato famine? Over 100 years ago, people in the country of Ireland ate a lot of potatoes – that was their main food. But they didn’t grow many different varieties of potatoes. A devastating disease called late blight arrived in the country and destroyed most of the potatoes. Perhaps one million people starved to death. This disaster might not have happened if more varieties had been grown
Okay. Now I understand why growing many varieties is important. If I were a farmer, how would you advise me to plant and grow different potato varieties?
Well, to begin, why not grow several varieties in the same field? Consider the colour and temperature of the soil, the steepness of the slope, and how much sun it gets. Then plant the kind of potato that will do best in those conditions. By doing this you make sure that your potatoes have a wide variety of characteristics and personalities, so that they can meet any possible pest or disease challenge.
Well, my friend – YOU have quite a personality. It’s been a pleasure talking with you and I’ve learned a lot about you and all your relatives. Thank you for coming here today. Do you have any parting words?
All I want to say to the listeners is: Plant a lot of potatoes! Plant many different varieties of potatoes! And eat a lot of potatoes – we’re good for you!
MUSIC TO END PROGRAM (If possible use or compose a song about potatoes.)
TheInternational Potato Centre (CIP)in Lima, Peru, has a collection of more than 5000 distinct types of wild and cultivated potato, 6500 types of sweet potato, and more than 1300 of other Andean roots and tubers. The potato collection alone contains more than 160 non-cultivated wild species, providing the world’s plant breeders with a potential source of traits ranging from cold tolerance to disease resistance. People at the Centre work with farmers and plant breeders to ensure the survival and improvement of the many different varieties. They also conduct research on sweet potatoes, other root and tuber crops, and on the improved management of natural resources in the Andes and other mountain areas. One of their projects, Papa Andina, works with small-scale farmers to promote potato diversity and link indigenous potato production with market demand. The International Potato Centre publishes and distributes many publications about their work. You can contact them at PO Box 1558, Lima 12, Peru.
Contributed by: Vijay Cuddeford, Toronto, Canada.
Reviewed by: André Devaux, Coordinator of the Andean Regional Project Papa Andina, International Potato Center, Lima, Peru.
“Potato: A fragile gift from the Andes“, Seedling, Volume 17, No. 3, September 2000. GRAIN, Girona 25, pral., E-08010, Barcelona, Spain. Tel: (34 93) 301.13.81. Fax: (34 93) 301.16.27. E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org
“How the potato changed the world”, by William H. McNeil, Social Research, Volume 66, No. 1, page 67, March 19, 1999.