Interactive conservation of native potato varieties, lessons for RTB crops

Interactive conservation of native potato varieties, lessons for RTB crops

Interactive conservation of native potato varieties combines two types of conservation: in situ (on farm) and ex situ (in genebanks). Learning more about how rural communities grow valuable varietal diversity is helping researchers to understand and support in situ conservation, while improving farmers’ livelihoods and nutrition.

Crop varieties can be conserved on farms (in situ) or in formal seed banks (ex situ), often at research centers. Ex situ conservation of roots, tubers and bananas is more work and costlier than storing the seeds of cereals and legumes, because vegetative seed (such as tubers and cuttings) must either be planted and grown every year or be frequently renewed using tissue culture. RTB has a lively community of researchers working across multiple crops on in situ conservation and exploring linkages with ex situ.

Participatory market chains build value for potato farmers and other actors along the chain. (CIP)

In situ conservation in the Andes is largely driven by farmers’ multiple demands for diversity: superior taste and texture, cultural attachment to local varieties and managing the risk of crop loss in a harsh environment. Conserving seed on farm has the advantage of keeping it in the communities that grow the crops, where diversity can evolve in a context of farmer selection. In situ conservation is highly dynamic: varietal portfolios change over time as some varieties are lost and others are added.

Farmers maintain unique diversity which is not necessarily covered in genebanks. The ongoing evolution on farms is driven by selection, mutations, geneflow and farmer seed networks. In a complementary manner, ex situ collections and outside experts can backstop communities that wish to reintroduce lost native varieties. This is interactive conservation, linking in situ with ex situ.

One association of Peruvian potato guardian farmers, AGUAPAN, has organized themselves to act on their motivations, concerns and needs to conserve the native potato varieties that they love. The association is now expanding from 50 to 100 members and communities. Through private sector support, a direct benefit sharing scheme is run to support farming, health and education. This is encouraging the guardian farmers to care for Peru´s priceless heritage of native potato varieties.

A recent study of farm communities in Huancavelica and Pasco, Peru shows that diversity is changing. Since 1975-1985, native potatoes in these regions have continued to be grown, but climate change has pushed them to higher altitudes, 300 meters further up on average, and the native varieties are now found in a narrow band between 3,900 and 4,200 meters above sea level. These native potatoes cannot go much higher.

The good news is that farmers are still conserving lots of native potatoes. Even commercial growers in Pasco still plant native varieties. But most native varieties are endangered, says Alejandra Arce, the leader of the study.
Group AGUAPAN, Peruvian potato guardian farmers. S. De Haan (CIP)

Farmers are growing widely-known commercial varieties, both native ones and those created by plant breeders. And Peruvian farmers are still growing dozens of floury local native varieties to eat at home, but most of these varieties are rare, and grown by just a few families. Some farmers also grow bitter varieties to make chuño, a freeze-dried potato consumed in the Andes since ancient times, but quickly becoming quite rare as food habits change and as a changing climate makes freezing temperatures less common.

While Pasco is a commercial potato-growing area; communities in Huancavelica plant potatoes mainly to eat at home, but also to sell. Potatoes contribute energy, iron, zinc, vitamin C and protein to local diets, but there is often a lack of dietary diversity. Half of the children under five are undernourished.

The farm families need better health care, and livelihood options that would allow them to access healthier diets with more meat, eggs, fruits and vegetables. The diversity hotspots must also become centers of prosperity for people to live and raise children if young farmers are going to continue to care for these irreplaceable varieties for future generations. Today’s potato varieties will be crucial for helping tomorrow’s farmers adapt to a changing world.

There are lessons here for the conservation of other root, tuber and banana crops in RTB and beyond. Conservation of treasured varieties need not be strictly in situ or in a formal genebank. Both strategies need to be brought together, in interactive conservation that helps farmers retain the varieties they need, while monitoring conservation and fostering the exchange of varieties so that both farmers and curators share materials to ensure their survival.