ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday June 01, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 53

Chile's potato claim is indigestible, says Peru

LIMA, Saturday (AFP) - The Irish hungered after it, Dan Quayle couldn't spell it, Russian cooks swear by it and China is its biggest producer -- and now the potato is at the root of an Andean war of words over where exactly it originated. Peru and Chile, longtime rivals, are each laying claim to the humble vegetable, which experts agree is indigenous to South America and was spread to Europe by Spanish colonists in the 16th century.

At stake is the reflected glory of being the home of the “patata” (or “papa” in the Quechua language of the Andes), celebrated this year in the UN Year of the Potato. Chile brought the dispute to a boil by disputing the bulk of scientific evidence -- and the UN potato website -- suggesting the spud was first cultivated near Lake Titicaca in southern Peru around seven millennia ago.

A baker prepares a stand with bread made with 42 percent of potato flour during the exhibition "The Potato: sacred and profane symbol", on Friday at the Nation's Museum in Lima. AFP

Agriculture Minister Marigen Hornkhol asserted the popular tuber in fact first sprouted on Chile's southern Chiloe Island, citing DNA tests showing that almost all the 7,000 potato varieties in the Netherlands have Chilean origins. The blowback from Peru was predictably starchy.

Chile wants to appropriate “7,000 years of agricultural copyright,” wrote Cesar Hildebrandt, an editorialist for the newspaper La Primera. Other dailies weighed in, accusing Chile of wanting to “steal the Peruvian potato” and highlighting past rival culinary claims that have divided the neighbors, including which country first came up with a grape-based alcohol commonly called Pisco, and another dispute over a custard dessert.

“The Chilean potato came from the Peruvian one. That is unquestionable,”Juan Risi Carbone, head of the Peruvian Agriculture Ministry's Agrarian Research Institute, told AFP. “The tuber has its origins in Peru in the region north of Lake Titicaca”and Chile's variety is nothing more than “a little grandchild” of Peru's great and original Solanum tuberosum, he said.

“It is as Peruvian as the Inca citadel in Machu Picchu or the Nazca Lines,”he said, aligning his country's comestible claim to its two ancient tourist attractions. He and other Peruvian scientists point to work by a US researcher, David Spooner, who three years ago firmly put the origins of the potato in Peru.

But while there is no doubting the conviction of the Peruvians that they are the descendants of the first people to tease 'taters from the ground, doubts have been sown and are beginning to grow. Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia written by some of its users, gives priority to the Peruvian view, but mentions quickly the competing Chilean claim.

Peru's International Potato Center, based in Lima, offers a nuanced view upholding the conventional wisdom, but also explains why the Chilean type of potato might be more widespread in the world.“It's true that 75 percent of the varieties grown outside of the Andes come from Chile and its archipelago, but it's also true that the genetic evidence shows that the 'andigenum' tubers of the Andes and the 'Chilotanum' ones have a common origin,” a researcher there told AFP.

The Chilean varieties went on to dominate in Europe because they came from a region with similar altitude and light and were therefore more adapted to the Old Continent, he said. Even as the row sizzles on between Peru and Chile, it looks like a third chef could muscle into the kitchen to stir the pot.

Bolivia is now making its own bid to be known as the progenitor of the potato after uncovering traces of what it says was a spud that pre-dated those of its neighbors.

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