Latin American potato breeders, researchers and farmers have formed a network to share expertise and technologies with their counterparts in Africa and Asia to improve food security and farmers' incomes there.
The network — Platform for Innovation — was created in September at a meeting of potato experts from ten Latin American countries at the International Potato Centre (CIP), in Lima, Peru.
It is expected to be of most benefit to potato growing countries such as China, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, and those in Central Asia such as Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, which lack the technology and genetic diversity found in Latin America.
Latin America — where the potato originated — has more than 200 varieties of potatoes, adapted to different climates, agricultural systems, geographical conditions, crop pests and diseases.
"We have a rich biodiversity to offer in terms of nutrition, productivity and resistance," says Stephan de Haan, an agronomist in CIP's crop improvement and genetic resources department.
The importance of the potato in Latin America, he says, has resulted in much research into the crop.
Potatoes are the fourth most important food crop worldwide after wheat, rice and maize. According to CIP, annual production approaches 300 million tonnes worldwide. More than one-third comes from developing countries.
While average yields in North America and Western Europe can reach 40 tonnes per hectare, yields in developing countries are usually less than half that. This is mainly due to crop pests and diseases, which are especially damaging when the genetic diversity in a crop is low.
According to de Haan, the network will promote technology transfer, develop training programmes, foster the diffusion of improved seeds, share databases of genetic material, and build research partnerships.
"A cooperative network could greatly facilitate the exchange of seeds and genetic material," says de Haan, adding that intellectual property rights for genetic resources have substantially limited the sharing of such material between countries.
The Platform for Innovation is at a planning stage, establishing contacts with countries and organisations interested in joining it. These will include research centres, national agriculture agencies, universities, non-governmental organisations, farmers and farm organisations, and the private sector.
CIP is coordinating the network but when it is fully active people from other participating institutions will manage its activities, and CIP will revert to being one of its members.
The network should be fully active by June 2005.