Peruvian farmers safeguard over 1,300 potato varieties, ensuring biodiversity amidst the pressing challenges of global climate change.

In the towering Andes of South America, the potato is more than just a dietary staple; it's a cultural treasure. With over 1,300 unique varieties growing between 3,200m and 5,000m above sea level, these aren't your typical supermarket potatoes. They come in vibrant shades of purple, pink, red, and black, and many have intricate shapes and names that reflect their significance in local traditions.

Tammy Stenner, executive assistant at Asociación Andes, a non-profit in Cusco, Peru, highlights the cultural importance of these potatoes. One such variety, named "the-one-that-makes-the-daughter-in-law-cry", is used in a traditional test for potential brides, emphasizing the potato's deep-rooted significance in Andean society.

However, these unique potatoes now face a new challenge: adapting to the impacts of climate change.

To address this, the Potato Park was established near Pisac, Peru, in 2002 by six indigenous communities. Spanning almost 10,000 hectares, the park aims to preserve the genetic diversity of the region's potatoes and the cultural heritage of the indigenous people who cultivate them. The park also serves as a research ground, where farmers test which potato varieties can best adapt to the changing climate.

Potatoes have been cultivated in the Andes for about 8,000 years, and their diversity has always been their strength. Stenner, who supports the park through Asociación Andes, emphasizes the importance of this diversity in ensuring the crop's survival.

The efforts at Potato Park are part of a global initiative to protect and adapt essential food crops threatened by climate change, pollution, and neglect. While seed banks, like the famed Svalbard Global Seed Vault, play a crucial role in preserving crop diversity, the majority of global seed diversity is actually maintained by the world's 2.5 billion smallholder farmers. These guardians of diversity cultivate a myriad of unique crops, from rainbow-colored corn to lemon-like cucumbers.

As well as preserving many varieties of potatoes that might otherwise be lost – along with the agricultural knowledge and traditions involved in growing potatoes at high altitude – farmers are testing which of the existing varieties can best adapt to the kind of extreme conditions that are expected to become more common as the global climate changes.

Historically, diverse crop cultivation was common. However, the introduction of "improved" crop varieties led many farmers to abandon local varieties. Helen Anne Curry, a professor at Georgia Tech, emphasizes the importance of in situ conservation, where crops are preserved through active cultivation, allowing them to adapt to real-world conditions.

Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit in Iowa, US, exemplifies this approach. According to BBC, they not only store seeds but also distribute them to gardeners and farmers for cultivation. This active cultivation allows for the adaptation of crops to specific local conditions and even the creation of new varieties.

In the Potato Park, as average temperatures rise, the ideal conditions for different potato varieties are shifting to cooler, higher altitudes. However, there's a limit to how high they can go. As Stenner notes, echoing a community elder, "You can’t grow potatoes in the sky." The solution? Encouraging potatoes to re-adapt to lower altitudes.

Mike Bollinger, executive director of Seed Savers Exchange, believes in the inherent adaptability of many open-pollinated varieties. Instead of relying solely on technology, he suggests leveraging the natural intelligence already present in these crops.

As the world grapples with the challenges of climate change, the guardians of the Andes, with their rich potato heritage, offer a lesson in resilience, adaptability, and the importance of preserving biodiversity.

Eunice is a sustainability writer whose passion is sharing accessible eco-friendly practices with GreenCitizen's global readership. She enjoys birdwatching during her downtime, often deriving inspiration from nature's resilience. An enthusiastic cyclist, she is also an ardent advocate of eco-friendly transport.

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