The potato is taking root in Nepal like never before, and Kulbir Vyanjankar will be the first to tell you why. This 45-year-old farmer from Sankhamul in Kathmandu Valley is enthusiastic about the potato variety known as “MS-91”, which allows him to have two harvests instead of one. Moreover, he can use small easily transported seedlings rather than whole seed potatos. Another important plus is that he can now grow varieties that are resistant to disease. For his agricultural leap forward, Vyanjankar credits scientist Saman Bahadur Rajbhandari.
Rajbhandari, 52, is the Deputy Director of the Government’s Department of Botany and it is his team that over the last five years developed a novel method of growing potato seedlings in the laboratory and transferring it to the field. A graduate of Lucknow University, with a PhD in tissue culture from the University of Wales, Rajbhandari received the prestigious King Birendra Science and Technology Academy Award for his pioneering work in developing high-yielding plants, including potatos, through the culture of cell tissues.
Rajbhandari says he began work on the potato believing that tissue culture could provide enormous opportunity for developing agriculture and forestry in the region. “In Nepal, we already have enough trained people to perform research in this field and we are not really that far behind the developed countries in tissue culture work.”
The technique perfected by Rajbhandari was to grow potato seedlings in the lab and then to transplant them outdoors in sand so that rooting and “hardening” of the stem take place directly in the fields. The seedlings are then ready to be transplanted yet again in the farmer’s plot. Compared to lab intensive work elsewhere, Rajbhandari’s technique produces seedlings at very low cost. More importantly, the seedlings turn out to be hardy and adaptable to new soil. An Indian biotechnology company has shown interest in importing the techniques developed by Rajbhandari’s team, which works out of a herbarium in Godavari on the outskirts of Kathmandu.
While his tissue culture methods have expanded the production of some, like the Sankhamul farmer, Rajbhandari cautions that the country is not about to be inundated with high yield seedlings. “With available funds, we can barely produce 100,000 seedlings a year. That does not go very far,” he says.
The team at Godavari focussed on the potato because of its increasing importance as a source of nourishment to the growing Nepali population. Unlike other crops, the potato thrives in the fertile fields of the Tarai as well as on rocky soil at 14,000 feet. The plant is increasingly grown throughout the country, and in the higher climes it sometimes seems that the locals eat nothing else. In Namche Bazaar, the visitor is offered potatos prepared in a variety of ways: fried, boiled, baked, stewed, stuffed, mashed and pickled, for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
It is not difficult to understand why the humble alu is so well regarded. It has exceptional nutritional value. A field of potatos produces more food energy per hectare than any other crop. It is probably the world’s most efficient means of converting plant, land, water and labour into palatable and nutritious food. The potato is recommended for its fibre content, carbohydrates, and Vitamin C. It is fat free and is 80 percent water.
It seems clear that the potato will continue to gain as a Himalayan staple. According to Janak Dev Sakya, Deputy Chief of the Swiss aided National potato Development Programme (NPDP), there are 80,000 hectares under potato cultivation in Nepal today, up from 50,000 in 1973. Despite the growth in acreage, on a global scale, Nepali production is minuscule. The country produces under 500,000 tons of the crop yearly, compared to 300 million tons worldwide. India produces three percent of the global output.
Nepali farmers, like farmers the world over, have traditionally planted potatos from tubers, which are identical “clones” of the parent plant, rather than from seeds. Vyanjankar is excited to receive the Godavari seedlings because till recently he regularly lost 40 percent of the tubers he had stored for planting. Using seedlings provided by the Godavari herbarium, the Lumle Horticulture Farm in Kaski District has been able to produce 40 tons of potatos from one hectare, which is double its previous output from traditional varieties planted in the traditional way.
The lack of uniformity and the weak nature of seedlings limit their acceptability for large scale commercial use. Except for the high altitude communities in Himalaya, where the extreme cold freezes viruses and bugs in their tracks, potatos are notoriously disease prone. Consequently, the Department of Botany and the NPDP have spent considerable time trying to fight diseases with exotic names such asnet necrosis, hollow heart, brown rot and potato scab. NPDP’s Sakya says farmers prefer strains of potato named NPI 106 and T5T4 because they tend to be most resistant to two diseases which are common in Nepal, late blight and wart.
It is difficult to imagine the hills of Nepal without the potato, but the Lichhavis and the Mallas certainly did not know the potato. When Prithvi Narayan Shah’s soldiers set out to blockade Kathmandu Valley in 1744, theirs was probably a potatoless diet. The potato was domesticated in the Andes of southern Peru and northern Bolivia more than 5000 years ago. It remained there till just 400 years ago when it spread to Europe and then onward to the colonies, arriving in Nepal westward from the Darjeeling area around the mid 1700s. potato cultivation is mentioned in Kirkpatrick’s “An Account of the Kingdom of Nepaul'”, published in 1793.
The International potato Centre in Lima, Peru, maintains the World potato Collection in Huancayo, the very heart of the potato’s ancestral territory in the Andes. Some 8000 strains and varieties of potatos are preserved in a living state and planted each year. After the centuries long trek from the Andes to the Himalaya, 81 varieties are found in Nepal today. The red potato, poor yielding and disease prone, is believed to be the oldest variety in Nepal. It is finally losing ground to better varieties introduced by NPDP.
So what is in store next for the potato? The race is on to produce the “true potato seed” (TPS) to replace seed tubers so that potatos can be planted like any other vegetable, says Rajbhandari. In Nepal, research on the potato seed has been going on since 1976 and has gained momentum from recent breakthroughs in China, Sri Lanka and India. The International potato Center is also actively conducting research into the true potato seed. Presently, seeds are rarely planted except in China. Otherwise, they are used primarily for seeding purposes.
One 50 kg sack of TPS would be enough to sow 400 hectares, which now require nearly 1000 tons of seed tubers. The benefits in terms of storage and transport are obvious. The production of disease resistant and easy to transport potato seeds would revolutionize hill agriculture and there would be better and more potatoes for a country that is steadily growing hungrier because of faltering productivity of traditional crops such as rice, wheat and maize.