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COLUMN ONE : Debut for the Hairy Potato : With its unmatched potential for feeding the world's hungry, scientists are laboring mightily to make a better spud. That requires outwitting some ever-resourceful insects.

December 25, 1991|WILLIAM R. LONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LIMA, Peru — K. V. Raman placed a "hairy potato" leaf under a microscope rigged with a television camera, then sprinkled a few tiny aphids on the leaf's dark surface. Suddenly, on a nearby video monitor, it was the giant aphids vs. the hairy potato.

Live and in color. Hungry aliens advancing over the magnified leafscape. Getting gummed up and bogged down in a forest of sticky stalks. Struggling mightily. Then weakly.

Finally, the aphids were still. Raman, an entomologist from India, smiled triumphantly. The hairy potato had prevailed.

"It's something like flypaper, yeah," Raman said. But it's much more than that.

The hairy potato is a new, hybrid potato plant with tiny, goo-tipped "hairs" on its leaves and stems that keep aphids, beetles and other bugs from eating at humanity's expense. The hybrid helps increase crop yields and reduces the need for costly and toxic insecticides.

It is one of many innovations the Peru-based International Potato Center is harvesting in a major effort to stem the advances of world hunger and environmental contamination.

Potatoes, first domesticated many centuries ago here in the Andean region, offer unmatched potential for feeding the Earth's increasingly crowded population, expected to reach 6 billion by the end of the century. As the International Potato Center likes to point out, the potato can produce "more nutritious food faster and on less land than any other food crop."

It's also extraordinarily adaptable, according to Gregory J. Scott, an economist at the center (and a grandson of the late Los Angeles philanthropist Joseph Scott). Potatoes are grown in 140 countries, surviving at altitudes ranging from below sea level to more than 14,000 feet, in deserts and in the humid tropics and as far north as the Arctic Circle.

While the Soviet Union is by far the world's biggest producer, potatoes are also the main staple in such countries as Peru, Bolivia and Colombia. Potato production is on the rise throughout much of the Third World, doubling, for example, in billion-strong China since 1960.

Also, developing countries have enormous potential for increasing production further, Scott noted. Average Third World yields range from 12 to 30 metric tons per acre, compared with 75 to 85 tons in the United States and a potential 170 tons an acre for some of today's improved varieties.

In terms of value, potatoes already are the world's No. 4 food crop, after rice, wheat and corn. But the few potato varieties grown commercially in most countries are vulnerable to devastating plagues and blights. As a result, farmers use more chemical pesticides on potatoes than any other crop except cotton.

One of the main priorities of the International Potato Center--known by its Spanish initials as CIP--is to reduce the need for those chemicals, which increase farmers' costs, contaminate rural environments and sometimes endanger the health of consumers.

Hence the hairy potato.

Developed in a joint project by the CIP and Cornell University, hairy potatoes currently are being tested by commercial farmers in the United States. They have been successfully grown on an experimental basis without insecticides in Peru and the Philippines, said Raman.

"We are not saying we are going to zero application of these insecticides," he said. "But we can cut them back 80% or so."

While the hybrid's resistance to insects has been proven, Raman said, the CIP is still working on "improving the quality of the tuber and maybe pushing the yields more."

The tuber is the potato plant's edible end--technically an underground stem rather than a root. The "eyes" of a potato tuber are really buds, and when they are planted, they sprout and produce new potato plants.

Tubers come in myriad sizes and shapes. Breeders hope that the hairy potato tuber eventually will be as big as your basic Idaho potato. Hairy potatoes now being tested yield up to 1.8 pounds of tubers per plant, while hairless commercial varieties, with heavy use of insecticide, can yield more than 2.2 pounds per plant.

The hairy potato has been proven resistant to the Colorado potato beetle, a feared pest in the United States, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Most insecticides used against the Colorado beetle have been withdrawn from the U.S. market because they contaminate ground water.

Other insects stymied by the hairy potato include the potato tuber moth, the leaf miner fly, thrips, mites and aphids--all major threats to potato crops in developing countries.

Hubert Zandstra, director general of the CIP, predicted that hairy potatoes will be in widespread commercial use "three to five years from now--with a lot of luck, two years."

Obviously, the hairy potato did not materialize overnight. Nor did any potato, for that matter.

As long as 2,000 years ago, Andean farmers began cultivating domesticated varieties derived from wild potato species. After the Spanish conquest in the 16th Century, the potato reached Spain and began to spread through Europe.

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