Five years ago, starches were persona non grata in the United States. The Atkins diet was the rage, and prospects for the potato were dim. As Maine farmer Don Thibodeau sowed another crop of spud seeds and watched wholesale prices fall, he and friend Bob Harkin had an idea. They launched a distillery using potatoes to make vodka. "Vodka was first made with potatoes, but as grains took over, spuds were pushed to the wayside," says Harkin. But now, the potato is making a comeback, both as a driver of economic development and as an important and nutritious food.
The United Nations has declared 2008 the International Year of the Potato in an effort to raise worldwide awareness of the lowly tuber. The vegetable has come a long way from its original cultivation in the Peruvian Andes several thousand years ago. Now, about 350 million tons are grown each year, making potatoes the fourth-largest source of food on the planet behind rice, wheat, and corn.
With the world population expected to grow by some 100 million in the next two decades and with most of that growth in the developing world, the need for a nutritious and fast-growing food is more critical than ever. A good source of nutrients like vitamin C and potassium and virtually fat free, the potato is also smart: "It's one of the most efficient ways to convert seed, land, and water into nutrients for human consumption," says Lee Frankel, president of the United Potato Growers of America.
Barometer. While some might snicker at the U.N.'s potato PR, there is more to the initiative than conferences and advertisements. Past U.N. campaigns have included the Year of Rice in 2004, which successfully raised awareness of that grain's nutritional value and resulted in more cultivation. "The potato is a good barometer of developing economies," says Daniel Gustafson of the U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization. In Europe, potato production has fallen by 1 percent every year for the past two decades, while the developing world—led by India and China—has been increasing production by some 5 percent a year over the same time. Further, potatoes are largely eaten and processed domestically; only 6 percent of the global potato output is traded internationally.
Meanwhile, as populations become more urbanized and countries more developed, the demand for fresh potatoes declines and the demand for processed potatoes (chips, french fries, and frozen foods) increases. That means more money for potato crops. "The potato allows countries to get more value out of their land, their water, and the time spent cultivating because it can be used in so many ways," says Gustafson. "The potato has been one of the most transformative foods in history," says Meredith Hughes, cofounder of the New Mexico-based Potato Museum. "There's no International Year of Celery on the horizon."