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UN Says Potato Can Provide Food Security, Eradicate Poverty

As the International Year of the Potato 2008 winds down, the United Nations is appealing for continued global attention on the role the potato can play in providing food security and eradicating poverty in helping to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. It said the potato is a staple, nutritious food that can provide poor people with an inexpensive food that can stop hunger and keep people healthy. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

To many people, the potato is an object of fun. Couch potato comes immediately to mind. But, the United Nations thinks the spud is a stud as far as it's ability to feed and preserve the planet. It goes so far as to say that the potato can help save the lives of many of the world's poor and hungry.

Paolo Garonna is Officer in Charge of the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe. He noted the U.N. General Assembly resolution that launched 2008 as the International Year of the Potato stressed the link between the potato and the Millennium Development Goals.

These, he said, include food security, poverty eradication, health and safety.

"It is really a hidden treasure," said Garonna. "It is a hidden treasure from the point of view of the long-term objectives of the U.N. It is the most widely grown tuber crop. It is the fourth largest food crop after rice, wheat and corn. It is a global food staple…Potatoes are easy to grow, even in harsh environments. They have a high-energy content. They can be produced from a very small area of land. So, I think small peasants and poor families can grow potatoes. They are rich in vitamin C," he said.

Before the food crisis began, 800 million people suffered from chronic hunger and under-nutrition. The United Nations reported that figure has now risen to 923 million. While the price of most food commodities has skyrocketed, the U.N. noted the cost of potatoes has remained relatively low.

The U.N. said it is important to boost agricultural production and productivity in a sustainable manner. It said the cultivation of potatoes is very much part of comprehensive efforts for greater food security through productivity gains.

The U.N. European Commission for Europe has just wound up a meeting, which adopted a number of quality standards to help growers produce healthy potatoes that will give high yields and to help prevent soil contamination.

"One specific and quite important element that had been approved by the Working Party this year was the attachment to the standard which is the list of diseases and pests," said Serguei Malanitchev, Chief of the Economic Commission for Europe's Agricultural Quality Standards Section. "This list, it has been under development for a number of years already, enumerates the most important diseases and pests that attack potatoes."

UNECE officials said anyone who thinks creating standards to protect health and safety is unimportant should review the history of the Great Irish Potato Famine in the mid-19th century. They note one quarter of a million people in Ireland died of starvation because the potato was stricken with a disease known as late blight.