China releases production plans for new nutrition darling: the potato

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock
© iStock

Related tags Potato Starch Rice China

Just months after listing the potato as China’s fourth crop staple, Beijing planners have announced a raft of production goals in a bid to promote sustainability and improve land use through to 2020.

The potato industry’s latest five-year plan sets out goals for increased planting area and enhanced yields, while officials set out to make potatoes more popular among Chinese farmers and consumers.

According to the new policy, 30% of potatoes will be consumed as a staple food in 2020, from an anticipated yield of 130m tonnes. Over the next five years, planting areas will grow to an expected 6.7m hectares—up from 5.3m hectares—with sizeable chunks of wheat and rice production making way for the new staple.

Later this year, China will officially end its policy of purchasing corn for temporary storage and will set out to reduce its huge inventory of more than 250m tonnes, with starchy potatoes taking up the slack.

According to commodities analyst CCM​, the planners’ action plan fully demonstrates China’s determination to promote the potato as a staple alongside rice, wheat and corn. The policy, it says, is due to the high nutrition value of high-fibre, low-fat potatoes, as well as the crop’s adaptiveness to diverse planting environments.

With 18 amino acids and plenty of cellulose and microelements that human body needs, the new focus on potatoes will benefit consumers as well as the cause of food security​,” said Xie Conghua, a potato researcher at the Huazhong Agricultural University.

With the planners’ projections requiring large-scale cultivation, the potato’s ability to adapt to dry, cold and barren areas will help, says Xie, while its need for less water and fertilizers make it more efficient than wheat or rice.

Jin Liping, the chief scientist of China’s potato industry technology system, has found that a potato crop needs only 350mm of annual rainfall to be productive, compared to wheat and rice, which require 450mm and 500mm respectively. 

This means that potatoes will be especially bountiful in arid northwest China, where it is difficult for cereals to germinate. Higher potato yields also accompany reduced water loss and soil erosion, Jin found.

Yet, despite the potato’s potential as staple and sustainable food, CCM believes that the the crop still faces a number of challenges, not least because China is playing catch-up with Europe and America, where investment in science and research is already established and technology advanced. Annual per-capita potato consumption in European countries is 50kg to 60kg, whereas it is minimal in China.

Also, China currently cultivates few potatoes, and development is uneven, with a shortage of seeds for varieties that are fit for processing into granules and flakes. Moreover, production is barely mechanised, while its manufacturing supply chain is largely unformed compared to other staples.

Roughly four-fifths of current potato production is for low-yield crops, and with three-quarters of farms found in mountainous areas, the lion’s share of small-size machinery in use is  unsuited to an expansion into flatlands, for which China would require significant imports of plant.

Despite these challenges, many experts believe that it is right for the potato to gain prominence as a staple food, and the crop’s newfound status will drive deep investment in production.  

Professor Xie suggests that if China wants to develop the potato into a food staple, it will be necessary for the state to promote its use to encourage farmers to cultivate the crop. At the same time, he says that more research should be devoted to the whole potato value chain through collaboration between stakeholders and accelerating the development of seed breeding.

According to CCM, changes to China’s agricultural planting structure will also help the potato’s charge into the mainstream, at a time when soy output has now shrunk to its lowest level in 22 years, and corn planting is on the wane.

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