Potato may help feed Ethiopia in era of climate change

May 15, 2013 by Blaine Friedlander
Potato may help feed Ethiopia in era of climate change
Semagn-Asredie Kolech, left-center, doctoral candidate in horticulture, poses with a group of Ethiopian farmers after surveying their practices.

With unpredictable annual rainfall and drought once every five years, climate change presents challenges to feeding Ethiopia. Adapting to a warming world, the potato is becoming a more important crop there – with the potential to feed much of Africa.

Semagn-Asredie Kolech, a Cornell in the field of horticulture, studies the potato and bridges the tradition of Ethiopian farming with the modernity of agricultural science.

He shuttles between Ethiopia and Ithaca to examine and research efficient in the shadow of . "The potato is a good strategy crop for global warming. It has a short growing season, it offers higher yields, it's less susceptible to , and you can grow 40 tons per hectare. With wheat and corn, you don't get more than 10 tons a hectare," Kolech says.

Ethiopia sits on the brink of thriving financial and gross domestic product forecasts, as its government formally merges green economics with climate-change resilient policies. But the country's suffers from poor cultivation practices and frequent drought. However, new efforts – including Kolech's research – are beginning to fortify the country's agricultural resilience, reducing the threat of starvation and bringing on the rising possibility of exporting potatoes to other African countries.

Annually, Ethiopian farmers plant potatoes in the spring and late summer. Yet, they still search for optimum planting dates and vie for vibrant drought-tolerant varieties if planted in the short-rain season, and sidestepping , if planted in the longer .

At an Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future forum in March, Kolech presented preliminary research gathered last summer. He surveyed Ethiopian farmers in potato-growing regions to understand their varietal inventory and crop practices. Farmers tried new varieties, but they often reverted back to using their traditional , he said. For example, in the Shashemene district (southern Ethiopia) about 47 percent of farmers used new varieties before 2012. That percentage dropped to 17 percent willing to use new varieties in 2012. Further, he found that in the Yilmana district, the use of new varieties dropped to 15 percent last season, down from 35 percent prior to 2012.

Kolech said that he found that the usage drop-off is due mostly to poor storage quality. New varieties have good attributes, such as high yield and late blight resistance, but in northwestern Ethiopia where more than 40 percent of potatoes are grown, the potato color and taste changes in storage earlier than the local varieties.

To hedge bets on drought or late blight, Kolech found the farmers revert to traditional varieties in the Shashemene district to alleviate food shortage. This summer, he will continue to survey farmers and collect the local cultivars for genetic diversity analysis, and then test these varieties for drought-stress tolerance.

In 1970 Ethiopian farmers planted less than 30,000 hectares of potatoes. Today, more than 160,000 hectares are planted. With a population of 93 million and a land size almost double that of Texas, Ethiopia can accommodate growing 3 million hectares of potatoes, Kolech says.

Explore further: Oregon food label measure headed for recount

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Farmers markets driving tomato research

Feb 07, 2013

The emergence of farmers markets in the Lower Rio Grande Valley has led to new research that shows planting dates affect the productivity of organic tomatoes, according to an expert at the Texas A&M AgriLife ...

UW scientists probe, attack late blight in potatoes

Sep 03, 2012

(Phys.org)—As the annual potato harvest begins, Wisconsin farmers continue to check their fields for late blight, the ferocious plant disease that caused the 1848 Irish potato famine and fueled massive ...

Recommended for you

Oregon food label measure headed for recount

Nov 25, 2014

Tallies of the last remaining ballots show an Oregon measure that would require labeling of genetically modified foods lost by only 809 votes and is headed for an automatic recount.

How photosynthesis changed the planet

Nov 20, 2014

Two and a half billion years ago, single-celled organisms called cyanobacteria harnessed sunlight to split water molecules, producing energy to power their cells and releasing oxygen into an atmosphere that ...

From dried cod to tissue sample preservation

Nov 19, 2014

Could human tissue samples be dried for storage, instead of being frozen? Researchers are looking at the salt cod industry for a potential tissue sample drying technology that could save money without sacrificing tissue quality.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.