With a climate changing faster than most crops can adapt to and food security under threat around the world, scientists have found hope in a ‘living museum’ dedicated to a staple eaten by millions daily: the humble potato.
High in the Peruvian Andes, agronomists are looking to the ancestral knowledge of farmers to identify genetic strains which could help the tubers survive increasingly frequent and intense droughts, floods and frosts.
The Potato Park in Cusco is a 90 sq km (35 sq mile) expanse ranging from 3,400 to 4,900 metres (16,000 feet) above sea level. It has “maintained one of the highest diversities of native potatoes in the world, in a constant process of evolution,” says Alejandro Argumedo, the founder of Asociación Andes, an NGO which supports the park.
“By sowing potatoes at different altitudes and in different combinations, these potatoes create new genetic expressions which will be very important to respond to the challenges of climate change.”
There are 1,367 varieties in the park, which lies in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. The intensely cultivated patchwork of tiny fields and graded terraces is a ‘living laboratory of potato diversity’.
The park residents are conducting tests to see how resistant the native varieties are to frost, hail and intense sunlight and also to the Andean potato weevil, whose larvae eat through the tubers underground.