Potatoes, the Real Treasure of the Incas

The potato (solanum tuberosum) is the world’s number one non-grain food commodity. Unlike major cereals, the potato is not a globally traded commodity. Only a fraction of total production enters foreign trade, and potato prices are usually set by local production costs, not by international markets.

Photo by Jose Gil  Potatoes grow quickly, on less land, and in harsher climates than any other major crop; and up to 85% of the plant is edible human food, compared to around 50% in cereals. 

  The secret of the potato’s success is its great diversity. Some give soups a creamy density, providing a delicate taste that highlights other ingredients. Others are great when baked, served as a simple snack or with a filling as a complete meal. Roast potatoes – crisp and golden outside and fluffy inside – are the perfect accompaniment to roast meat. Smooth, creamy, mashed potato is said to be the “ultimate comfort food”, while “new” potatoes, steamed or boiled, are a special delicacy.

  Home-grown or purchased in markets, fresh potatoes are baked, boiled or fried and used in an astonishing range of recipes: potato pancakes, potato dumplings, twice-baked potatoes, potato soup, potato salad and potatoes au gratin, for example.

  Potatoes are used in curries in India and in pasta in Italy, stewed with bananas in Costa Rica, baked with rice in Iran, stuffed with liver in Belarus, stir-fried with green beans in Ethiopia, and simmered with smoked haddock in winter soups in Finland.

  A medium baked potato has about 160 calories, about 4 grams of fiber including the skin, 4 grams of protein, no fat, double the potassium of a banana, and a good supply of vitamin C.

  The potato is planted in early spring in temperate zones and late winter in warmer regions. In some sub-tropical highlands, potatoes are grown year-round and harvested within 90 days of planting, compared with 150 days in temperate climates such as in northern Europe and North America.

  FAO (UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation)estimates that just over two-thirds of the 320 million tonnes of potatoes produced in 2005 were consumed by people as food, in one form or another.  

  Dehydrated potato flakes and granules are made by drying a mash of cooked potatoes to a moisture level of 5 to 8%. Flakes are used in retail mashed potato products, as ingredients in snacks, and even as food aid.

  Potato flour is ground from cooked, whole potatoes and retains a distinct potato taste. Gluten-free and rich in starch, potato flour is used by the food industry to bind meat mixtures and thicken gravies and soups.

  Modern starch processing can retrieve as much as 96% of the starch found in raw potatoes. A fine, tasteless powder with “excellent mouth-feel”, potato starch provides higher viscosity than wheat and maize starches, and delivers a more tasty product. It is used as a thickener for sauces and stews, and as a binding agent in cake mixes, dough, biscuits and ice-cream.

  Potato peel and other “zero value” wastes from potato processing are rich in starch that can be liquefied and fermented to produce fuel-grade ethanol. A study in New Brunswick estimated that 440,000 tonnes of processing waste could produce 4 to 5 million litres of ethanol.

  Cattle can be fed up to 20 kg of raw potatoes a day, while pigs fatten quickly on a daily diet of 6 kg of boiled potatoes. Chopped up and added to silage, the tubers cook in the heat of fermentation.

Potatoes in Canada

  • The potato is Canada’s most important horticultural crop, accounting for one third of all vegetable farm cash receipts, worth $846 million in 2007.
  • In 2006-07, Canada shipped 970 000 tonnes of frozen French fries to foreign markets, making it the second largest French fry exporter after the Netherlands. In the same period, it exported 120 000 tonnes of seed potatoes valued at $38 million and 470 000 tonnes of table potatoes worth $140 million.
  • Potatoes account for about 36% of all fresh and processed vegetables consumed in Canada.  


Using information from FAO