Friday, February 6, 2015

Kung Pao Potato: Can China Learn to Love the Spud?

This is the one food revolution readily available to China. Everything is right to make potato starch a primary staple, just as was done in Europe. Land efficiency leaps several fold and the demand on the land is light in terms of nutrient drain.

Obviously it is time to do this to ensure local food sufficiency.

My only surprise is that it took so long to do when it is so obvious and so easy.

Kung Pao Potato: Can China Learn to Love the Spud?

Chinese tend to associate the potato with foreign French fries. Now the government needs to turn the tuber into part of the national diet

By Dexter Roberts

The potato doesn’t get a lot of respect in China, where rice and noodles made from wheat typically dominate the dinner plate. Ask a Chinese Mainlander to name a popular potato dish and the likely reply will be McDonald's French fries—and that's in a country where fine national cuisine is a point of pride. The potato does show up in the meat stews in the northeast and alongside chicken and mutton in the far northwestern Muslim region of Xinjiang. One of the few widespread potato dishes eaten across China is served shredded and sautéed with green pepper in vinegar.

Now the Chinese government wants to turn the potato—known as tudou, or "earthy bean"—into a popular food in order to better utilize scarce farmland. In preparation for the starchy future, China's agriculture ministry announced plans earlier this month to double the land devoted to spuds production from five to 10 million hectares. China is already the world’s largest potato producer, with annual production of 90 million metric tons in 2013, according to Zhang Hongzhou, an associate research fellow at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. Most of this production is for domestic consumption, but given China's huge population, per capita potato consumption is low.

Potatoes require far less land and water than rice.

The public effort to encourage more potato eating is already underway. China’s national television channel, CCTV, shared potato recipes on its Weibo account, including preparations for Kung Pao potato and potato pancakes. "The potato will soon be Chinese people's newest staple food, after rice, wheat and corn," said Xu Xiaoshi, the national planning agency director, at a food policy meeting in Beijing on Jan. 8, according to a report in the official English-language China Daily. “Potatoes can be mixed into bread, steamed buns, and noodles to suit Chinese consumers' taste and habits," he said.

Potatoes have been around China for about four centuries, introduced from the New World by Portuguese traders in the 1600s. The hardy tuber was first grown in mountainous areas and arid regions not fit for other crops. The arrival of potatoes even helped spark a new era of rapid population growth, according to Fuchsia Dunlop, a chef and food writer specializing in Chinese cuisine. Later the crop, along with the sweet potato, was relied on during times of national food scarcity, saddling the crop with a bad rap today. “It was only people living in these marginal areas who would consider these starchy foods as potential staples, because they had to—anyone who could afford the choice would eat rice, or wheat in the north,” wrote Dunlop on her food blog in 2010. “Most people in China still seem to regard potatoes as a poor peasant food or a famine staple.”

Why is Beijing now keen to raise the profile of the humble spud? It has everything to do with food security, a millennia-old concern of China’s emperors that is still relevant today. As China’s leaders like to point out, their country must feed a fifth of the world’s population but only has about 10 percent of all arable land. Freshwater resources are badly constrained, too, amounting to just 7 percent of the world's total, according to the United Nations. Some 70 percent of Chinese water demand goes to agriculture.

Ensuring that China can feed itself is becoming a more vexing policy challenge alongside the nation's rapid urbanization. The proportion of Chinese living in cities has risen from less than a fifth in 1978 to over half now—and China’s leaders have set a goal of lifting that to 60 percent by 2020. Rampant economic development has left 3.3 million hectares of former farmland—an area equivalent in size to Belgium—too contaminated to grow crops, Chinese authorities announced a year ago. Meanwhile, 60 percent of China’s groundwater is classified as “bad” or “very bad,” officials announced in November.

That’s where the potato comes in. China already has a surplus of potatoes; grain and soybeans, by contrast, have been imported at ever-larger volumes in recent years. Zhang Hongzhou, a university researcher from Singapore, notes in a recent article on, a website focusing on Chinese environmental issues, that potatoes also require far less land and water than rice, wheat, or corn. As of 2012, China on average was able to grow 27.2 metric tons of potatoes per hectare—far more than the 6.8 metric tons for cereals. Many more people can be fed from “the same-sized patch, as potatoes pack much more energy punch than cereals,” says Zhang.

The push to promote potatoes could have ill health effects. Changing food habits, including the growing popularity of fast food—French fries, for example—is already leading to a growing obesity problem in China. According a report last year by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, 23 percent of Chinese males younger than 20 are overweight or obese, as are 14 percent of their female counterparts. Twenty-five years ago, the rates for both sexes was less than 10 percent. The problem in China is far less severe than in the U.S., where almost 30 percent of young men and women are overweight—and potatoes are far more popular. That could change if China goes hog wild for spuds.

No comments: