Potatoes, and ingredients derived from the crop, are set to experience growing demand as cereal prices continue to soar.
The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation is currently promoting the tuber as a more efficient food crop that can improve food security in developing countries. About 80 per cent of the potato crop can be used for human consumption, significantly more than for cereals like corn and wheat.
Farmers can also produce a much bigger potato crop on the same amount of land as cereals, and in less time, says NeBambi Lutaladio, in charge of tuber crops at the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation.
"The land and water use efficiency is superior," he told FoodNavigator.com. "You can produce 20 tonnes per hectare in 50 days. The same area would yield only 10 tonnes of cereal after a longer period of time."
Novel potato-derived ingredients are also expected to see strong demand from food producers, currently facing soaring raw material costs, say industry managers.
"Given the significant increase in the costs of dairy raw materials people are looking for alternatives. We expect significant growth in demand for potato proteins," said Frank Goovaerts, director of Solanic, a new firm created to market potato proteins to the food industry.
Grains prices have hit record highs in recent months, following poor harvests that compounded already low global stocks thanks to growing consumption mainly in Asia.
Some initiatives have already been launched to encourage consumers to replace cereal-based foods with potato products. In Peru, the government is urging people to eat bread made with potato flour to try to reduce costly wheat imports and keep food price inflation down.
FAO is also organizing a series of events and conferences for the International Year of the Potato to boost knowledge about the crop. It wants to bring together scientists to share findings on more productive potato varieties and how to use the tuber in processed foods.
Production of potatoes is anyway growing faster than grains, particularly in developing countries. The global crop reached a record 320 million tonnes in 2007, with developing countries accounting for more than half of the world's harvest compared with a mere third in 1990.
In China, the world's biggest potato producer responsible for 72 million tonnes last year, agriculture experts have proposed that potato become the major food crop on much of the country's arable land. By 2020, the average annual growth rate of potatoes will be 2.7 per cent, predicts the FAO, compared with 1.8 per cent for corn, 1.5 per cent for wheat and 1.3 per cent for rice.
Users of potato-based ingredients still face challenges. The potato is easy to grow, making it a valuable cash crop for millions of developing world farmers, but it is also highly labour intensive. Potatoes require an average 25 hours of labour per hectare compared with 8 hours for cereals.
A spokesman at starch producer Avebe said both cereal and potato-based starches have become more expensive. "The rising cereal prices have forced us to increase potato prices as well in order to keep the farmers interested in growing potatoes," he told FoodNavigator.com.
However potato prices have not increased to the same extent as cereal prices, said Goovaerts. The company is also working on developing other higher value potato-derived ingredients such as enzymes.