Potatoes grown from seeds may solve hunger in Africa

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Potatoes grown from Dutch seeds yield 2 to 4 times bigger harvests for small-scale, poor farmers in East Africa than potatoes grown using local seed potatoes. These findings are the result of initial tests using experimental varieties grown from potato seeds by Wageningen-based agro-tech company Solynta in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As such, potatoes grown from seeds may prove to be an effective means to provide not only the growing population of Africa, but also those of India, Bangladesh, and China with more and better food and thus contributes reducing hunger.

For several years now, Solynta has been working on breeding potatoes grown from the actual seeds of potato plants. This method allows one to develop new varieties of potatoes faster, varieties that are better able to withstand potato blights, in turn making the use of pesticides obsolete. These varieties produce increased yield and are easier to transport, because only 25 grams of seed can be used to sow the same number of new potatoes as 2,500 kg of seed potatoes. Thanks to its groundbreaking techniques, Solynta was named a National Icon in 2014, and given a 2.5 million euro grant by EU programme Horizon 2020, because of its huge importance to the global food supply.

Solynta expects that they will be able to bring the first marketable potato varieties to the market in 2021. “But really, we can’t afford to wait that long, because 30,000 people die of hunger and malnutrition every day,” says general director Hein Kruyt. “The test in Congo has shown us that Solynta’s True Potato Seeds can contribute solving a serious problem, including in other countries where hunger is an issue.” That is why Solynta is looking for partners and support to be able to supply potato seed sooner to developing countries and other countries where the farmers are looking to increase yield.

The results of the experiment were rather unexpected. Solynta sent an envelope containing the seeds of ten experimental potato varieties to Nioka in Congo, a representative location for overall potato cultivation in the highlands of East Africa. These seeds were then sown throughout the first half of 2016. Although the test was performed under tough conditions and there was barely any rain for ninety days, the seeds yielded between 8 and 29 tonnes of potatoes per hectare, two to four times the usual yield in Africa. “Keep in mind that this experiment wasn’t even conducted with our best seeds – just think of what kind of yield those could produce!” says Kruyt.

After rice, corn, and wheat, potatoes are the most cultivated staple food in the world, and they are grown on all continents. The millions of small-scale farmers in Africa who grow potatoes to provide themselves with sustenance buy their seed potatoes on the local market. The average yield per hectare ranges from 5 tonnes of potatoes per hectare in Uganda to 15 tonnes in Kenya. The yield depends on the quality of the seed potatoes. These are often poor quality, because the propagation, storage, and distribution of seed potatoes leave something to be desired. The farmers save part of their harvest to sow in the coming year, which further diminishes the quality of the crop.

Seed potatoes from the Netherlands are unaffordable. On top of that, the containers full of seed potatoes coming out of Europe often spend weeks just sitting there in the harbour, and it takes even longer for them to be transported to the hinterland. A good portion of the seed potatoes may spoil in that time. Kruyt: “We are able to send an envelope full of good, clean seed, instead of a container, within 24 hours, for farmers to use to get started on their harvest.”

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