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Written by Rima Alcadi

Food security in the South is more than just cereals. Root and tuber crops (RTCs – including potatoes, cassava and sweet potatoes) rank among the seven most important food crops in developing countries. Asia-Pacific is home of the world’s RTCs – as the region with the highest production, consumption and utilization of these crops. Besides being staple food especially among indigenous peoples and poor households, RTCs are an affordable source of nutrition and offer income-generating opportunities through their versatile and multiple uses. The session was presented by Dindo Campilan, from the Centro Internacional de la Papa (CIP), a CGIAR centre.

The Root and Tuber Crops for Food Security in Asia-Pacific is a CIP project funded by IFAD, approved in December 2010. How did this project start? In 2008 during the rice crisis, IFAD sent a mission to Asia for verifying how to rapidly increase the production of rice. But once there, we found that the farmers were actually eating roots and tuber crops, so we decided to focus on these instead, for enhancing food security.

In Asia, although the primary focus is on rice for food security and self-sufficiency, there are many places where roots and tubers are staples. Even in the Indo-Gangetic plains, in which the rice-based food system prevails, sweet potatoes are grown in between the rice seasons.

In this session, we learnt about innovative products and uses of these underground treasures, which have been undervalued and neglected in agricultural research and development efforts. We were introduced to a lot of different products - from taro, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava, yam etc.

Of course, we were allowed to taste many of these products, including chips (salty as well as sweet), bread, purple yam jam and so on. We brought glass noodles made from sweet potatoes back home for tasting too!

We also shared our experience from our own countries, or from our work experience. Chiara Calvosa (IFAD) highlighted that during the war in certain areas in Africa, people used to eat cassava leaves, as “famine food “. So a major impediment in promoting the consumption of cassava leaves is the stigma attached to it - people do not want to be reminded of the bad times. Indeed, the need to overcome the fact that people associate these crops as “poor people’s foods” (as in the case of most neglected and underutilised crops – NUS) is a major challenge. Branding can play a very important role in this regard.

Another peculiar challenge faced with roots and tubers in Asia is that their health properties are not recognised. So although potatoes have almost 0 fat and are quite nutritious, people associate them to french-fries! The project is addressing such challenges– using several knowledge sharing tools involving the media, celebrities acting as champions, chefs, extensionists, Facebook, YouTube and so on. We thought it would be interesting for CIP to work more with schools as well – promoting school gardens, inter-generational exchange of knowledge and simple modules that could be easily adapted to the various disciplines, to students’ different age groups and to the teachers’ personalities. These ideas were based on IFAD-funded projects implemented by Bioversity International and Oxfam Italia.

Some interesting facts that we learnt?

Sweetpotatoes are not potatoes – they belong to the morning-glory family. Unlike the potato - which is a tuber, or stem - the sweetpotato is a root.

There are over 4,000 edible varieties of potato, mostly found in the Andes of South America.

The potato is the third most important food crop in the world in terms of human consumption. More than a billion people worldwide eat potato.

Do not peel your potatoes – you will lose the micronutrients!

For more information, please contact Dr Dindo Campilan: d.campilan@cgiar.org