Why women in the Andes grew 4000 species of potatoes

Photo Credit: Association ANDES and Åsa Sonjasdotter.

Sometime back, one of my research projects in the conservation field was to look for genetic diversity in crop vegetation in the small farming communities in Africa, Asia and South America.  What was most interesting was that commercial farming was large scale and mostly involved men.  But food grown for local and household consumption was on very small (backyard) scales, and these almost always involved women!!

And it was in these small household farms run by women farmers that you found the most amazing genetic diversity of crops. 

By far, my most favorite case study was that of the Quechua community in the Andes, where the women grew 4000 species of potatoes!!!  4000 species!!  To understand why that is so amazing — get this, all the potato grown in the U.S. basically represent only about two species!!  The Irish famine happened because — all the potatoes in Ireland at that time grew from one stock species.  When you have that kind of uniformity — then one disease comes along and wipes out your entire crop.

The more diversity you have, the less likely that you will lose your entire crop.  Some will die.  Some which are immune will survive.  That’s one of the reasons there is such a big need for diversity in food crops.


So I wondered how did these women farmers in the remote Andes breed more than 4000 species of potatoes might reinstate this tuber’s dignity.  Incredible as it seems — there potatoes of every size, shape, color and taste!  Perhaps just their range of potatoes have more variety than all the vegetables in some of our markets.  They have been doing it for centuries.  Well the secret is that potatoes are generally grown asexually through cuttings or tubers.  But the Andean women cultivate their potatoes through sexual reproduction!!  They have some birds and bees doing it for them.  But what explains this incredible diversity!!  Well they hand-pollinate!!! Yes, as part of the ritual of farming there is they actually hold the flowers of one plant and brush it against the stamen of another!! 

To know why they needed to grow 4000 species of potatoes and how they do it click here >>

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  1. Tapas Ray

     /  June 11, 2011

    Rita, this is very interesting, but I couldn’t read the rest. The “click here” link seems broken. – Tapas

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