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A spudtacular celebration

January 14, 2008

by Ivan Raconteur

Critics have suggested that the United Nations is nothing but a gaggle of impotent, irrelevant old busybodies, but it is now clear that this is not the case.

The UN General Assembly has pulled off a masterstroke that may well go down as the most brilliant action the organization has undertaken in its more than 60-year history.

It has declared 2008 as the International Year of the Potato.

I am a tater fan from way back, and it is about time the world recognizes the tasty tuber and gives it the respect it deserves.

The UN action will help to accomplish this.

The goal of the International Year of the Potato (IYP) is to raise awareness of the importance of the potato (solanum tuberosum) in addressing hunger, poverty, and threats to the environment.

Spuds have been a staple in the Andes for about 8,000 years, and their popularity has expanded and increased for centuries. Today, they are grown and enjoyed worldwide.

Supporters of the IYP say taters should be a major component in any strategy aimed at feeding the poor and hungry, because they produce more nutritious food more quickly, on less land, and in harsher climates than any other major crop.

Potatoes are rich in carbohydrates, vitamin C, potassium, and other nutrients.

The folks over at the UN have even provided a web site (www.potato2008.org) to explain IYP, and it is chock-full of fascinating information about taters.

There are details about the history and uses of the tubers, and about how they are helping to fight hunger and poverty in developing nations.

The site explains that demand is increasing, and world potato production has increased at an annual rate of about 4.5 percent for the past 10 years.

The site includes a spiffy diagram identifying the parts of the potato plant, as well as photos of some of the more common varieties of spuds from among the thousands that exist. The captions under the photos identify the country of origin and the most common uses for each variety.

It is best not to view these photos before lunch, because they tend to increase the appetite.

About two-thirds of the 320 million metric tons of potatoes that are produced annually are consumed by people as food (as opposed to other uses, such as industrial applications, animal feed, or seed potatoes).

Potatoes are one of nature’s most versatile products. They can be baked, boiled, or fried, and used in an unlimited array of recipes.

We can have stuffed hash browns or potato pancakes for breakfast, potato salad for lunch, and a nice baked potato for dinner.

Potatoes are the ultimate convenience food, too.

When they are processed as crisps (chips), no one can eat just one.

And, when it comes to french fries, more than 11 million metric tons are enjoyed annually by people around the world.

That is a lot of Happy Meals.

Taters can be processed into flakes or granules, potato flour, or potato starch for use in the production of other food products.

They can be distilled into alcoholic beverages, such as vodka and aquavit, or even fermented in the production of beer.

According to the IYP web site, potato starch also has many non-food applications, and is used in the pharmaceutical, textile, and paper industries. It is also a 100-percent biodegradable substitute for polystyrene, and can be used in the production of items such as disposable dishes.

Potato peel and other by-products can be used in the production of fuel grade ethanol.

In the US, potatoes were not planted until 1719, according to the web site.

Today, the US harvests 20 million metric tons of spuds each year, making it the fourth largest producer in the world (China is first, and India is second).

Each American consumes more than 110 pounds of potatoes each year, although some of us exceed that figure by a wide margin.

There is, of course, a certain amount of bureaucratic gobbledygook on the web site. Members of the UN, like politicians everywhere, seem to be afflicted with a condition in which language gets in the way of what they are trying to say.

Take, for example, this definition of the strategy of the program:

“The strategy for IYP implementation is to engage partners and the entire potato community in developing synergies and initiating combined and mutually beneficial and supportive actions in order to sustainably improve potato-based systems.”

Huh?

I think what they are saying, or trying to say is something like, “Let’s work together and share information to improve potato production and distribution.”

Their strategy might be more effective if people actually understood what it is. There is really no need to use pretentious language when one is talking about something as fundamental and straightforward as a potato.

The UN may not be able to bring about world peace or accomplish some of its other lofty goals, but it has taken up the cause of promoting one of nature’s most taterific, but under-rated, products. For this, the UN deserves some credit.