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UN declares 2008 the Year of the Potato

NEW YORK - An ancient Bolivian legend tells the story of Choque, son of a Sapalla chief, who chose to resist the assault of the Kari invaders. To reward him for his courage, the gods sent Pachacamaj, who changed into a condor that delivered some tubers and a direction: allow the invaders to eat the visible plant and save the part that is below ground for the people. The potato, then, was the substance that fed them and helped them to regain their freedom.

This is one of the creation stories of the potato, which was first cultivated 7,000 years ago around Lake Titicaca in Bolivia by the Tihuanacu (the ancestors of the Aymaras, President Evo Morales' people). The humble tuber helped sustain 500,000 Tihuanacus, and then the Huari people of what is now Peru, hundreds of years before the Incas took over.

Many centuries after the fall of the Incas, the United Nations has declared 2008 to be the Year of the Potato; and while jokes involving the dear spud are bound to follow, the fact is that this indigenous food staple has fed millions of people over the centuries. Possibly the most famous of the potato growers however, were the Inca and their ''Empire of the Sun.''

According to noted Bolivian agricultural scientist Lauro Lujan-Claure, ''The incontrovertible fact is that the domestication of the potato constituted the beginning of agriculture in the high Andean plateaus and due to the availability of this food staple the population of the entire Andean mountain region was able to grow. ... The unrivaled agricultural-economic organization of the Incas met its primary objective of food security through an equitable system of production and distribution to the Inca rulers, the nobles, the army and the people ... the word 'papa' [Spanish for potato] comes from the Quechua language and means tuber, and it was distributed to all the peoples conquered by the Inca.''

He also mentions how the Inca developed a method of freeze-drying a certain potato variety that could be stored in mountainous areas for long periods of time.

While the Inca's remarkable processing and distribution system is gone, the issue of food security is a growing problem again; and with food shortages and even food riots worldwide, the measured cultivation of this nutritious root vegetable could save even more lives.

There are 200 species of wild potatoes in the Americas, with seven species of the domesticated type and 5,000 varieties still grown in the Andes. Scientists from most of the Andean countries, especially Colombia, Bolivia, Chile and Peru, are working on even more variations along with increased research into the plant's genetic makeup and history.

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The potato that we eat today, known as Solanum tuberosum, ''is an herbaceous annual that grows up to 40 inches tall and produces a tuber - also called potato - so rich in starch that it ranks as the world's fourth most important food crop, after maize, wheat and rice,'' according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization Web site, That ranking could change, considering the widespread and growing use of the potato.

In 2008, for instance, potatoes are grown on 74,000 square miles of farmland, from China to Nepal, India, Africa, Java, most of Europe, the Western Hemisphere and just about everywhere on this planet. In the last decade, potato production has increased by 4.5 percent, surpassing the rates of other major food commodities in developing countries, especially in Asia.

In Lujan-Claure's seminal ''History of the Potato,'' he notes the following: ''On top of that, according to anthropologist C. von Furer-Haimendorf, the introduction of the potato to the Sherpa Khumbu region, along one side of Mount Everest in Nepal, stimulated the growth of the population and generated essential agriculture for the development of a sophisticated Buddhist civilization in the northern region of that country.''

The experiences of the Incas, the Nepalese and many other peoples have shown how significant the potato has been for the survival of large sections of humanity. In 2007, it was listed as the world's top nongrain food commodity with total production of nearly 353 million tons, the largest output to date. Consumption of the potato is increasing dramatically as well, especially in developing countries where more than half of the crop is grown. The potato's high energy content and its ease of cultivation make it a very important crop for millions of growers.

''At the same time, the potato - unlike major cereals - is not a globally traded commodity,'' according to the U.N. site. ''Only a fraction of total production enters foreign trade, and potato prices are determined by local production costs, not the vagaries of international markets. It is, therefore, a highly recommended food security crop that can help low-income farmers and vulnerable consumers ride out the current turmoil in world food supply and demand.''

It is also a very nutritious food, containing carbohydrates, high-quality proteins, Vitamin C and potassium. The potato's many virtues include its adaptability to many climates, from the cold of the Andean highlands to the tropics of Java.

''The potato produces more nutritious food more quickly, on less land, and in harsher climates than any other major crop - up to 85 percent of the plant is edible human food,'' states the U.N. report.

The potato is being celebrated for these qualities. For instance, the people of Peru commemorated the Year of the Potato with dozens of celebrations, involving indigenous dances and presentations. In Native communities, hundreds of ceremonies honored the many varieties, giving thanks for such a remarkable gift given first to indigenous people and now to the world.