Roughly 8,000 years ago, farmers here in the Andes sparked a revolution in food. They began domesticating wild tubers that grew on the mountain slopes and high plains of what is now Peru and Bolivia. They bred yellow ones and white ones, fat ones and skinny ones, and gave them memorable names: "Flat like a cow's tongue," "Like a woman with the colors of a condor's neck," and "Makes the daughter-in-law weep."
The result: the potato, which has spread to nearly 150 countries and has quite literally changed the course of history. Yet, far from being immortalized, these venerable native varieties are being forgotten. Technology, urbanization, and market forces are pushing them aside with modern, cheaper cross-bred varieties.
As a result, Peru is draining a gene pool of potatoes that one day may play a crucial role in breeding. Equally troubling, it's deflating, bit by bit, mountain traditions that have lasted millennia. Researchers are trying to reverse the decline, but their success may depend on consumers rather than farmers. So far, the prognosis isn't good.
"We don't have a market for these potatoes," says Ramiro Ortega Dueñas, director of the Regional Center for Andean Biodiversity Research at San Antonio Abad National University of Cuzco. "The culture is being lost."
Equating native foods with culture may sound quaint. In the Andes, however, faith and food, people and potato, are tightly bound. Simply put, rural farmers invented the potato, which in turn fed even the humblest of them.
The relationship began no later than 6000 BC, when researchers believe natives first domesticated the wild tuber around Lake Titicaca, the border between modern Peru and Bolivia. By the time Spanish conquistadors came along in the 16th century, the potato was the staple of the Andes. It was the stuff of legends, such as the "Baked Potato Gleaner," a god covered in dirt but endowed with inner magical power.
Today, farmers still offer potatoes to their deities before they plant. And until recently, mothers in villages all around the Andes used the variety called "Makes the daughter-in-law weep," to test prospective wives for their sons. Women who could peel the nubby tuber were considered worthy. But the potatoes are so bumpy, the most determined young women could be reduced to tears trying.
The potato spread internationally soon after the Spanish conquest. It arrived in Europe in the latter half of the 16th century, probably through Spain. But getting them to Europe proved a lot easier than getting them into Europeans.
The first edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica called them "demoralizing." To keep them out, Britons set up the Society for the Prevention of an Unwholesome Diet - one explanation for the nickname "spud." Bit by bit, everyone realized their potential: Potatoes could produce more food more quickly on smaller plots than any other major crop at the time.
Today, potatoes are the world's fourth most popular crop (after wheat, corn, and rice). They produce more edible material than humans' annual catch of fish and slaughter of livestock - combined. They're also used to make starch, paper, adhesives for textiles, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals.
But here in Peru, the potatoes that started the revolution are falling into disuse. "Little by little, these species are under threat of genetic erosion," says Merideth Bonierbale, head of crop improvement at the International Potato Center in Lima.
The reason: Farmers in the Andes find it more profitable to grow improved varieties. No one knows how many species have been lost, but evidence of decline looms everywhere. At the Wanchac market here in Cuzco, for example, Nelida Quispe Caseres sells a dozen varieties of potatoes. When her mother first started selling here 20 years ago, the market was full of native varieties with different seasons and colors. Now, she only sells three native varieties, she says, "mostly because of the price." Customers are much more attracted to modern, improved potatoes, which they can buy for about 30 cents per kilo (2.2 pounds). Native varieties typically cost 40 percent more.
These varieties won't go extinct. The International Potato Center maintains a gene bank with some 8,000 different potato specimens, half of them from the Andes. But storing genes in test tubes, while vital for future crossbreeding, doesn't allow native varieties to adapt to new conditions.
Researchers are anxious to find ways to reintroduce native potatoes to rural communities. The International Potato Center, for example, has reintroduced about 1,000 varieties of native potatoes into 18 indigenous communities in the past four years. But the real breakthrough will come if researchers can find a way to market the colorful native varieties. The International Potato Center is working with an entrepreneur who makes a processed puree mostly from a native yellow potato. There's continual interest in getting Peru's gourmet restaurants to offer seasonal native varieties.
The biggest hope lies with the native potato chip. Because some varieties contain various colors, they create interesting designs when sliced thinly. "We are looking for varieties that stay light-colored when fried," says Dr. Bonierbale of the potato center.