Friday, April 18, 2008

Potatoes as rice alternative

International rice prices have hit past $1,000/ton already yesterday, a historic high, and the trend is towards even higher price in the next few months. The Philippines – now the world’s biggest rice importer – is particularly at a disadvantage. With this situation, there are 2 major choices: bear the higher price and scrimp or save on viands and other household expenses, or shift to other rice alternatives – like potatoes.

Potatoes are more versatile than rice because they can be grown at any climate, from the hot tropics to the cold temperate continents, and at any elevation. Unlike rice, potatoes require very little water and they can mature in less than 2 months, whereas the short-duration rice varieties will mature in 3 months.

In addition, average yield for potatoes is at least twice that of rice. Potato farmers do not need threshers and millers; the product can be cooked and consumed without any laborious and complicated processing. And potatoes are rich in certain healthy substances like complex carbohydrates.

A number of the indigenous people in the Philippines like the Aetas eat sweet potato (locally known as ‘kamote’) more than rice. Well, they don’t have threshers and rice milling (facilities) in the mountains, so manual threshing and milling to extract rice from palay (unhusked rice) is another labor-intensive work, on top of rice planting, growing and harvesting work.

There are a number of problems and disadvantages in potatoes though, compared to rice. One is transportation: potatoes are heavy and may rot during transit. Second, raw potatoes cannot be stored for long in warehouses or stockrooms that are not refrigerated, unlike rice that can be stored for several months in one’s kitchen at normal temperature.

Commercial potato traders can take care of the storage problem. The never-ending spikes in rice prices will surely push some people to slowly shift to potatoes, where there are several hundreds if not thousands, of different varieties.

When people do this, especially the poor, governments need not create new bodies like a ‘Potato Development Authority’ because this might distort the incentive system between producers and consumers. The latter will always look for food products that can satisfy their hunger and nutritional needs at affordable prices, whether these are rice or cassava, bananas or potatoes. And producers and traders respond to the changing taste and preferences of consumers.

At no other time in modern agricultural history, more people now should be in productive food production, trading and processing work, and less on unproductive regulatory work. That’s the only way if we are to expand food production, avoid hunger and the social ills associated with it.

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