WASHINGTON — Carlos Ochoa is the Indiana Jones of the potato world. Exploring the harsh Andean mountainsides since 1950, the Peruvian taxonomist has discovered and documented more than 70 species of wild potatoes.
"The Andes are very tough. You have to be in good physical condition. You have to have good eyes. You acquire certain instincts. You smell. And when you find . . . it's a gift for the spirit," Ochoa said.
His potato expeditions have taken him to a snow-capped peak that would later spew volcanic ash over the plants, and to the South American island that inspired Daniel Defoe to write "Robinson Crusoe."
Ochoa recently embarked on a far more modest journey, an all-potato symposium at the Smithsonian Institution where he joined 70 international scientists, researchers and policy-makers who have devoted their lives to the tuber.
The symposium was sponsored jointly by the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru, a scientific institution where Ochoa's wild-potato plants are stored.
Norio Yamamoto, an ethnobotanist at the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, Japan, spoke about the mythical potato in traditional society. Yamamoto spent several years in the Central Andes studying the agricultural practices of potato farmers, who snack on potatoes in the fields as they are harvested. (They bake them with the hot ashes from burning mountain grasses.)
John Niederhauser, now a professor of plant pathology at the University of Arizona at Tucson, spent his career helping other countries make the potato more productive. He just won the World Food Prize for his contributions.
Niederhauser, who lived in Mexico for 35 years, helped that country develop potato varieties resistant to the fungus that causes late blight, the disease responsible for the Irish potato famine. The Mexicans have plans to provide leadership to grow these varieties internationally, Niederhauser said.
Richard Sawyer, director general of CIP, who gave up a potential career in small fruits to found the research center with the world's largest potato-germ-plasm bank, kicked off the symposium with a rousing potato pep rally.
Calling it the most important diversification crop for countries with rice self-sufficiency, Sawyer declared that the potato produces more calories and high-quality protein per hectare (2 1/2 acres) per day than any other major plant food.
While the conference focused on the potato as the potential answer to world hunger, the promises of biotechnology and the minimization of pesticides, participants discussed the historical, cultural and culinary aspects of the tuber as well.
The cradle of the potato is the Andes, where Peruvian Indians first raised them more than 5,000 years ago. The Indians were ingenious cooks, learning how to dehydrate potatoes so that they could be stored for future use.
Still practiced today by Andean villagers, the ancient method consists of spreading the potatoes on the ground in the cold night air, followed by several days in the sun. Villagers then stomp on them to squeeze out the moisture that the freezing night air and hot sun have not already eliminated. The result is called chuno.
By providing a secure food supply, the potato has enabled civilizations to occupy themselves with other things. With self-sufficiency in food secure, the Incas were able to conquer much of South America, said Rhoades.
The Indians' potato know-how would come back to haunt them, however; almost 80 years after the Incas were conquered by Spain, Spaniards were still living off their warehoused dried potatoes.
Many scholars also link the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to the widespread production of potatoes in Europe, said Robert Mercer, president of the National Potato Promotion Board.
A readily grown crop eased the time and energy needed to feed the population. That energy was then redirected toward other pursuits, namely industry and technology.
Before it would gain widespread appeal in Europe, the potato went through tough times. First introduced by the Spaniards in 1570, Europeans thought it caused syphilis, leprosy, rickets and consumption. In fact, some of the English were so adamantly opposed to it that they wanted to ban it from the country.
Guilt by association was the cause of much of this discrimination, according to Rhoades. The potato belongs to the botanical family that includes hallucinogenic and narcotic cousins such as mandrake and nightshade.
The poisons in these plants were used to prepare ointments strong enough to give "witches the power to fly," Rhoades wrote in an article for National Geographic in 1982. Europeans wanted nothing to do with it.
Gradually, the Europeans eased up, and the potato was introduced to North America in 1621, when the governor of the English-controlled Bahamas sent two boxes of potatoes and other vegetables as a gift to the governor of Virginia.