In January 2020 India hosted the Global Potato Conclave, an opportunity to consider India’s position in a global potato industry and how a nation will write a roadmap to a better world. The notion that potatoes could make the world even better seems like a grand target, or perhaps impossible from a UK perspective.
Take a step back from potatoes in India to understand why it’s critical and not whimsical, that India must consider crops such as potatoes as an opportunity to change the world. India has a population of almost 1.4 Billion and quickly rising with India’s per capita income (nominal) was $1670 per year in 2016, ranked at 112th out of 164 countries by the World Bank, this is a very low starting point however with healthy year on year growth (pre pandemic). 43 % of the population are relying on agriculture for income and this provides huge opportunity to turn to the potential of the potato crop to produce a nutritious and environmentally sustainable food that generates good financial returns.
The Prime Minster of Mali opened the Global Potato Conclave underlining the ambitious targets the government is setting out set for the agricultural sector. They aim to double farmers income by exporting to their Asian neighbours as key to this increase. In order to achieve this standards need raising and effective supply chains will need to be bettered structured.
With land and labour in abundance, if India is managed effectively it can could see a decrease in poverty for many rural communities. Innovation is going to be critical, working with global partners and in some cases leapfrogging technologies that are standard in established western systems, which will come with risk but huge opportunity for reward.
The domestic consumption of potatoes in India is very low at 24kg per person per year. Particularly when compared to the 100kg per person per year in the UK. Traditionally India has been sustained by rice and cereal production, however this varies across regions with some areas historically being quite reliant on potato crops. There are multiple factors which makes the potato a promising opportunity with advantages in nutrition, environmental, economic and social trends.
There is a strong appetite for innovation an ideal not only for local businesses in India but the wider world is also watching and in many cases supporting development. When much of production is at grass roots stage there is a sense of ambition and opportunity to try some radical approaches. Access to digital tools and resource in digital modelling and programming is affordable and in many cases local. There are many programmes being implemented for pest and disease modelling. With data captured at a crop level often using a combination of smartphone technology and satellite imagery to then develop crop management tools using machine learning, however there is a race to market and like in many counties this does create a fragmented delivery. For success scale and farmer education will need to be at the core and you will often find this connected to government and academic institutes but that still need commerciality. Demonstrating an increase in on farm returns through increased yields or stable supply chain prices will be the ultimate measure of success.
Opportunities to try different things, no till potatoes! At the conference I met with the researchers at CIP who were working with farmers to grow potatoes using rice paddy and harvesting above ground. The purpose may have been borne from a different challenge as they were looking at how to increase production across the country in areas where land is just not suitable to root cropping systems. The challenge here in Europe is from a more environmental, soil degradation stand point and PCN control, however the learnings are the same. They based the principles on what resources they had and what would they need to redevelop and what will they need to understand better to grow potatoes without soil disruption. They were achieving good yields and amazing skin finish, but finding varieties was the next phase to progress.
Potato breeding and variety development seems to be the biggest barrier to progress I could see and there is clear frustration as debates were had about interpretation of policies which are a barrier to new varieties coming into the market. Farmers are predominantly growing traditional varieties, which are low yielding and susceptible to many pest and disease pressures. There is also lack of access to certified seed and wide spread seed piracy. The breeding programmes are controlled by the government and research organisations with some movement on international varieties getting through the system. This can change but it will take time and investment from exporting countries in building relationships as the dynamics of the potato industry progress, investment in processing plants and secure supply chain structures are likely to be the driving factor.
The potato market in India offers great opportunity but with opportunity comes risk and there remains many social barriers. The people I met at the Global Potato Conclave have a global perspective and strive to establish international networks with other potato trading nations. Change is happening fast as they take action, building a roadmap to a better world.
My time in India was part of my Nuffield Scholarship and funded by the BPTA, BPGA and Strathmore potatoes. This will be part of my final Nuffield report on the connectivity in the global seed potato supply chain. I am very grateful to the UK potato industry in supporting my study and helping me develop ideas to consider the future of the potato industry.
*figures World Bank