Return of potatoes from CIP to Andean farmers proves critical for climate adaptation

Peru's farmers are able to access a greater diversity of potato varieties for climate adaptation, thanks to the continued work of a ground-breaking agreement between CIP, ANDES and the Association of the Potato Park communities.

News, 27 November 2014
A Potato Park farmer in Peru leads the Potato Guardians collective (Photo: Adam Kerby)

A Potato Park farmer in Peru leads the Potato Guardians collective (Photo: Adam Kerby)

As world leaders gather in Lima to negotiate a new global climate deal at the UN climate conference, this innovative, inclusive work shows the importance of new kinds of partnerships between scientists and farmers for adaptation to climate change.

In the Peruvian highlands near Cusco, climate change has already impacted farmers in a fundamental way. Rising temperatures are correlated with increased pests and diseases, making it difficult to grow potatoes, their staple food.  

The effects of these temperature changes are very pronounced in the Potato Park, a valley outside of Cusco, where just 30 years ago, cultivation of native potato was routinely done at 3,800 meters.  

Now, native potato cultivation starts at around 4,000 metres. In just 30 years, challenges associated with a warming climate have pushed potato cultivation up by 200 metres. The speed of this change in planting zones due to a warming climate is unprecedented as it is pushing the farmers to the top of the mountain, beyond which there is no more soil or land.

In addition to moving to higher elevation for potato cultivation, Quechua farmers in the Potato Park are also responding to this challenge by stewarding more than 1,440 cultivars of native potato. These include their own varieties plus cultivars that different entities have provided to the Park, 410 of which have come from the International Potato Center (known by its Spanish acronym CIP).

The five communities that make up the Potato Park are also working with CIP scientists in the characterisation of potato diversity, monitoring changes in potato varieties used over time and testing of varieties in different parts of the landscape, a combined territory of more than 9,000 hectares.

Planting a diversity of potatoes provides a vital safeguard against crop failure – if disaster strikes, the farmers will always have food. This strategy to reduce risk comes from their ancestors.

The agreement with CIP has brought back varieties which had been collected from the communities in the 1960s but had since been lost. The resulting landscape-based gene bank is actively managed by the five Potato Park communities.

It provides a critical source of climate-resilient crops for adaptation, both locally and globally. Although gene banks conserve many food crops, they cannot safeguard them all, and their collections are no longer evolving in response to climatic changes, or accessible to farmers.

Alejandro Argumedo, director of programs of the Peruvian NGO ANDES explained: "The landmark agreement between CIP and the Potato Park for repatriation and monitoring of native potatoes represents a fundamental shift in approach. Rather than only collecting crops from farmers, scientists have also given farmers crops from their gene bank in return. The disease-free seeds and scientific knowledge gained have boosted food security, and the new varieties have enhanced income, enabling the communities to develop novel food products."

Head of the Genetic Resources-Genebank, CIP, David Ellis said: "Through the agreement, first signed in 2004, CIP is increasing its understanding of how climate change is affecting potato diversity and agro-ecosystems, and through collaborative and mutually beneficial research with the farmers, it has continued to enhance knowledge, adaptation to climate change and capacity development for sustaining potato production and traditional knowledge."

In Asia and Africa, hardy local landraces and livestock breeds are also proving a vital resource in the struggle to cope with more extreme weather such as droughts.

Krystyna Swiderska, principal researcher at IIED said: "From China to Kenya, farmers have improved both resilience and productivity by crossing resilient landraces with high yielding modern varieties."

This provides important lessons for agriculture officials and scientists gathering at the UN 20th Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP20) next week.

Swiderska added: "Adaptation, particularly in risk-prone environments may best be achieved by supporting a diversity of crops and using both modern varieties and landraces." Approaches such as participatory plant breeding do just that, linking science and traditional knowledge to produce new crops that are tailored to difficult environments.

Sonja Vermeulen, head of research with the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and food Security (CCAFS) said: "Negotiators will spend the next two weeks trying to hammer out a new climate change agreement, but we want to highlight how much work is already happening on the ground. Farmers know they need to adapt, so our goal is to connect them with the knowledge and resources that can help them stay productive and secure as climate changes."

IIED's SIFOR project (Smallholder Innovation for Resilience) has teamed up with CCAFS and ANDES to enable smallholder farmers from Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, India and Cambodia to visit the Potato Park during COP20, learn from its agreement with CIP, and facilitate innovation sharing between communities to enhance capacity for adaptation.

For more information, or to interview one of our spokespeople, please contact:

Alejandro Argumedo, +51 984 706 610/[email protected]

Sonja Vermeulen, +45 244 33733/[email protected] (travelling 5-6 December, limited email access)

María Elena Lanatta, +51 1 349 6017 ext. 3010/[email protected]

Krystyna Swiderska, +44 (0)7408 876 130/+44 (0)7814 995309/[email protected] (travelling 3 December, limited email access)

Events at COP20:

  • Thursday 4 December (2-4pm): Mountain CBA. Workshop at the Mountains and Water Pavilion Auditorium. The event will explore climate change impacts on mountain livelihoods and strategies for community based adaptation. IIED, ANDES and UNDP.
  • Saturday 6 December (5.30-7pm): The role of genetic diversity, traditional knowledge and restoration of native plants in climate adaptation and resilience. Session at the Global Landscapes Forum co-hosted by IIED, ANDES, CCAFS and CIP. The event will share lessons from the CIP-Potato Park agreement.