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FEATURE ARTICLE: POTATOES – THE WORLD'S FAVOURITE VEGETABLE
Following the conquest of the Inca civilisation in 1532, the Spanish conquistadors not only took back to Spain all the precious metal they could find but also the more humble potato. A taste for this 'new' food was quickly acquired by the Spanish and the other rapidly growing nations of Europe. Sir Walter Raleigh is credited with introducing the potato to the British Isles. Its use has since spread around the world, to the point where there are, on average, about 190,000 square kilometres of potatoes under crop every year - and on which, in 2005, an estimated 323 million (mill.) tonnes were grown.
Potatoes came to Australia with the early European settlers but, it seems, may not have figured in the first attempt at agriculture. In his despatch of 15 May 1788, Governor Phillip does not mention potatoes as one of the crops proposed for sowing. However, in 1797 Governor Hunter was able to report that 11 acres (4.5 hectares (ha)) were under potato crop in the Parramatta district west of Sydney. A decade later, this area had increased to 301 acres (122 ha); and nearly a century later in 1906, 119,000 acres (48,000 ha) of potatoes were under crop in Australia. By 2005-06, the total area under crop had diminished, albeit to a very productive 35,500 ha which produced a total of 1.3 mill. tonnes, comprising about a dozen varieties of potato (graph 16.36).
Today, potato production occurs around Australia with the exception of the far northern areas where temperatures exceed the optimal growing conditions for this cool-season crop. All states grow significant quantities of potatoes with the cooler states of South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria harvesting 386,000 tonnes, 282,000 tonnes and 270,000 tonnes respectively in 2005-06. Total value of this production was $470.8 million (m).
Although the area under potatoes has fallen about 26% in the last 100 years, production has risen five fold (graph 16.37). From the late-1800s, area planted increased until the 1930s when plantings declined. A sharp rise during World War II was followed by another decline but this coincided with improved farming practices, and the resulting stronger yield, lifted production. Over the last 30 years, area planted to potatoes has been steady, averaging about 38,000 ha.
In 2005-06, potato growers achieved an average yield of 35.4 tonnes per hectare (tonnes/ha). This was close to the 35.2 tonnes/ha five-year average and vastly better than the 7.6 tonnes/ha average achieved in the five-year period to 1906. As recently as 1970, yields were only half what they are today. The improvement is clearly shown in graph 16.38, with yields improving dramatically in the post-World War II period. This increase in productivity was due to the introduction of artificial fertilisers and irrigation. Based on the production and area estimates of the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations, average world yield in 2005 was about 18 tonnes/ha. Australia's national average yield easily surpassed this rate and was on a par with that for Denmark and Ireland. The United States of America, France and the Netherlands led the field, each with yields of around 43 tonnes/ha.
Despite good yields, the decline in production in recent years indicates a fall-off in the demand and consumption for potatoes. From a consumption rate of about 52 kilograms (kg) per person in the late-1950s, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that by the late-1990s Australians were eating their way through 68 kg of mash, chips, crisps or bake each year. However, the vegetable industry itself put the 2004 average intake at 63 kg. The probable causes for this decline in consumption are lifestyle changes, take-up of well marketed substitute products and dietary factors.
Internationally, Australia ranks well down the list of potato growing countries in about 35th place, with less populous nations such as Denmark, Rwanda, Belgium, Malawi and Kazakhstan, growing more. The world's largest producer of potatoes is China (73.0 mill. tonnes in 2005); Russia (36.4 mill. tonnes), India (25.0 mill. tonnes), the Ukraine (19.5 mill. tonnes), and the United States of America (19.1 mill. tonnes) are the next biggest producers.
In 2005-06, Australia exported 52,000 tonnes of potatoes or potato products, or about 4% of annual production, at a value of $39m. Nearly two-thirds (in value terms) were fresh or chilled while the remainder were processed (mostly frozen). Potato and potato product imports in 2005-06 totalled 36,000 tonnes worth $34m; 81% as frozen potato products. Most of this trade came from New Zealand in the form of $20m worth of frozen products.
While potato production may be falling in Australia, global production overall has doubled in the last 20 years. With the exception of Europe, there has been a general increase world-wide, particularly in the developing countries. In Europe, people eat an estimated 93 kg of potatoes a year while those in the developing countries consume on average around 22 kg a year. However, the good news is that consumption per person of potatoes has more than doubled in the developing countries in the last 40 years and is expected to continue to increase strongly.
In the world fight against hunger and malnutrition, the ability of the potato to contribute significant proportions of the recommended daily allowance for some minerals and vitamins may prove a life saver. The average potato, with the skin, has about 600 milligrams of potassium - comparable to a banana, more iron and vitamin C than half a cup of spinach, and important B vitamins and natural fibre. Also, potatoes are high in carbohydrates which the body relies on as its primary energy source. If Popeye the Sailorman had known this, he may well have swapped his can of spinach for a baked potato!
Potatoes grow quickly, are adaptable, high yielding and responsive to low inputs. To quote the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), potatoes '...are ideally suited to places where land is limited and labour is abundant...conditions which characterise much of the developing world'. To highlight these attributes and raise awareness on the role the potato can play in defeating hunger and poverty in the world, the United Nations has declared 2008 to be the International Year of the Potato.
Agricultural Commodities, Australia (7121.0)
Apparent Consumption of Foodstuffs, Australia (4306.0)
International Trade in Goods and Services, Australia (5368.0)
Principal Agricultural Commodities, Australia, Preliminary (7111.0)
Reid, R L (ed.), 1990, The Manual of Australian Agriculture (5th edition), Butterworths Pty Limited
Value of Principal Agricultural Commodities Produced, Australia, Preliminary (7501.0)
Year Book Australia, 1901 (1301.0)
Australian Vegetable and Potato Growers Federation (AUSVEG), last viewed July 2007, <http://www.ausveg.com.au>
Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations magazine, last viewed July 2007,
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAOSTAT), last viewed July 2007, <http://faostat.fao.org>
FAO International Year of the Potato, last viewed July 2007, <http://www.potato2008.org/en/world/>
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), National Agricultural Library, last viewed August 2007, <http://www.nal.usda.gov>