Natural Foods Merchandiser

Regular spuds are environmental duds

Produce Perspectives

Nearly everyone, including those who were scared away by the low-carb craze, likes potatoes. And many people know quite a bit about them. For example, cooks know that russets are best for baking and whites for roasting. Picnickers may know that small reds are best for potato salad because they hold their shape when sliced or cubed, and they also will not become mushy in dressing.

But I'm willing to bet that most of your customers don't know that every time they buy one of these standard potatoes, they are contributing to the loss of biodiversity.

The familiar potato, rich in vitamins C, B1, B2 and iron, is the most widely planted vegetable crop in the world. And yet, out of the 235 known species of potatoes, just seven dominate global use. In the United States, it's just four. That's because modern plant breeding has focused on producing a few good-tasting varieties that conveniently do well under mass production. Unfortunately, such a narrow range of genetic variability limits not only our experience with this wonderful plant, but also its survival.

Surprisingly, these few commercial varieties have changed little from the mid-19th century when the Irish Potato Famine occurred. If you remember your history, you know that from 1845 to '46, a potato disease, late blight, caused the death of 1.5 million people and the exodus of another million. The severity of the blight is generally attributed to people's reliance on the lumper potato, which had no resistance to the disease. When the blight hit, it ravaged Ireland in just two miserable seasons.

What does that have to do with us in 2006? Well, we are now experiencing a resurgence of late blight in the U.S. potato-growing regions. The limited varieties of potatoes grown for commercial use here today aren't bred for blight resistance, so conventional farmers rely on chemicals to combat the disease, even though it is resistant to most pesticides. Organic growers can use copper but have little else to combat blight. So basically we've made the disease stronger and the potato weaker by limiting the diversity of potatoes we grow.

Retailers can help overcome these obstacles by allowing the potato to show its true colors, flavors and textures in produce departments. Consider stocking heirloom, fingerling and other varieties such as the Rose Fin Apple, Swedish Peanut, Purple Peruvian, Russian Banana and Ruby Crescent. (Ruby Crescents are the smallish, oblong potatoes with a nutty, sweet flavor—they're well worth finding.) If you are willing to carry some different varieties, it would be a giant step in the right direction. When you offer your customers more choice, you'll help in three ways: promoting biodiversity, contributing to the local economy and supporting organic agriculture.

Another thing your customers may not know is that because a potato is a living tuber, it wants to go back in the soil after months of being stored and will sprout eyes to grow another plant. To stifle this urge, conventional potato packers use sprout inhibitors such as Sprout Nip, which carries a "danger" warning on its label, the Environmental Protection Agency's highest grade for toxicity. Organic potatoes are never treated with sprout inhibitors.

Potatoes shipped soon after harvest are generally not treated with sprout inhibitors because they are typically eaten before they start to sprout. But storage potatoes will sprout without inhibitors.

To avoid this, tell your customers to store the potatoes in a cool, dark place—even the refrigerator is OK. But they should let the spuds warm up before using them because the cold changes their starch to sugar, and warming them up changes it back again. Even if your organic potatoes do sprout, I'm sure your customers would rather desprout them using the tip of a knife than eat them with the conventional alternative.

And if you're worried about genetically engineered potatoes, relax. Even though they were widely grown in the 1990s, showing up in French fries, chips and other potato products in fast-food restaurants and stores, they are currently off the market.

Mark Mulcahy runs Organic Options, an organic education and produce consulting firm. Contact him at 707.939.8355 or at [email protected]

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 8/p. 33

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.