China is the largest producer of fresh potatoes in the world, churning out more than 80 millions tons of the edible tubers every year. But they're still not viewed as a staple of the Chinese diet, which far more heavily features products made from rice, wheat, and corn.
The Chinese government is trying to change that. The country is facing myriad threats to its food security, including polluted water turning arable land unsuitable and a booming population that's expected to need an additional 77 million tons of food by 2020. Increasing production of the potato, which requires less water to grow than rice and wheat and produces more food per acre, could help alleviate some of those threats.
"They're in a terrible bind," Orville Schell, director of the Asia Society's Center on US-China Relations, told VICE News. "Rivers are drying up, aquifers are sinking, and there's more people and more demand for water."
Last week, China's Vice Minister of Agriculture Yu Xinrong announced that he planned to nearly double the acreage used to sow potatoes, from 13 million acres to 25 million, without taking away land from wheat, rice, and corn production. He also announced plans to increase potato yields to more than 13 tons per acre from the current 11 tons — significantly higher than cereal grains.
The Yangtze River, which separates the wet southern region of China from the drier, more arid North, is one of the most polluted rivers in the world, with 25 billion tons of raw sewage and industrial waste making its way into the river ever year. That's left little clean water for irrigation; what is used often renders the land toxic.
The situation is dire enough that China is investing in a massive public engineering project to move water from the South to the North. But shifting away from water-heavy rice and wheat to potatoes may reduce some of the pressure: one study found that potatoes need 13 inches of water a year to grow, about equal to annual rainfall in the North. By comparison, rice needs about 20 inches per year and wheat requires 18 inches.
Because the potato requires significantly less water to cultivate, its an ideal crop for farmers in the more arid North and West of China.
Since 2010, the state has been encouraging the growth of potatoes by subsidizing seed production and training rural farmers to raise crop yields. It also opened a potato research center in Beijing.
But despite the potato's potential, the state may see resistance from Chinese consumers who've grown accustomed to more meat-heavy diets and less open to government influence.
"Diets are changing radically now because people are rich, there's much more animal protein and much more junk food and things like that," Schell told VICE News. "So I think it's going to be really hard now to have a meaningful campaign to put the potato in the middle of people's lives."
It wouldn't be the first time the state has pushed the consumption of potatoes. During times of famine, particularly the three-year famine at the end of the 1950s, China pressed for its starved citizens to eat more potatoes, particularly sweet potatoes.
Those potatoes are still heavily consumed due to their low cost, Schell said, but carry a stigma as "peasant food" that will be hard to overcome.
And past failures of government campaigns, like the 1950s effort to enlist citizens to destroy the sparrow population — a move that resulted in an explosion of crop-destroying insects — may make it even tougher for the state to alter eating habits now.
"There have been many, many of these kinds of campaigns that come from the top down, and you can do this in an authoritarian state, but they have not been tremendously successful," Schell told VICE News. "There's always a lot of resistance, particularly in the area of food."
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