In a country with more than 5,000 potato varieties, the arrival of another one should not really be a big deal. But this is Peru, where the potato was first domesticated and still plays a vital role in national identity.
A trio of CALS scientists has helped extend this rich tradition by introducing a new, frost-resistant variety that can help Peruvian potato farmers contend with difficult growing conditions caused by a changing climate. It’s the latest outcome of a decades-long collaboration with Peruvian researchers that is still going strong.
The three UW scientists — John Bamberg, Alfonso Del Rio, and Jiwan Palta — worked closely with researchers from Peru’s International Potato Center (CIP) and the Instituto Nacional de Innovación Agraria (INIA), and with Peruvian farmers, to develop the new variety, called Wiñay. The word means “to grow” in Quechua, one of Peru’s indigenous languages. The frost-resistant potato is long and thin with brown skin and yellow flesh and is grown for the fresh market. It was developed to be cultivated in Peru’s Altiplano at elevations of up to 14,000 feet above sea level.
Palta, a professor of horticulture and plant physiologist with the Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics program, says many of the wild potato varieties found in the Altiplano are naturally hardy and can tolerate temperatures down to 14 degrees F. However, these potatoes are small and have a bitter taste due to high levels of chemical compounds called glycoalkaloids.
The need for a hardier, frost-resistant potato in Peru’s highlands stems, in part, from climate change, according to both Palta and del Rio, a senior scientist in charge of the U.S. Potato Genebank research lab at UW. They say more frequent late-season killing frosts are causing greater yield losses for Peru’s farmers.
But developing a new potato variety to withstand such conditions is a time-consuming project, one that typically spans 10 to 15 years. The devil can be in the genetic details when crossing potato varieties to develop a new one. And an effective frost-resistant potato also needs good commercial qualities, including appropriate size, yield, and taste, and must be suitable for the growing conditions of the Altiplano.