China's Ministry of Agriculture started the process to promote the potato as a staple food since early 2015. The following interview introduced the related background. This interview was published in www.people.com on January 14, 2015.

China already has three major staple foods, then why to add potato?

Deputy Director General Pan Wenbo from cropping Management Department of the Ministry of Agriculture explains that potato has actually always been taken as a staple food in statistics in China, and it is already the main food variety after corn, rice and wheat. According to his introduction, the Ministry of Agriculture’s putting forward to promote potato as a staple food is mainly based on three points: First, it is to comply with the demand for healthy and delicious food. Potato is comprehensively rich in nutrient, and at the same time, low in fat content and high in protein quality, which is conducive to control weight, helps to clean intestinal tracts and prevents disease in the digestive system. Second, it can meet the demand of structural optimization and resource development. The shortage of soil and water resources is serious in our country, and the pressure on ecological environment is ever growing. In areas like Northwest where the shortage of water resources is serious, and North China where the exploitation of groundwater is much more than normal and South China where lots of the cultivated lands run idle in winter, we need to change the pattern of development to optimize the planting structure. Potato production is water-saving, land-saving, fertilizer-saving and pesticide-saving; therefore, it can be used as the main alternative crops for agricultural structure adjustment. Third, it conforms to the new changes in the fast pace of urban and rural residents’ life. Delicious and nutritious, potatoes are easy to be processed and are very popular in fast food restaurants or in household. Promoting potato as a staple food to process potato into convenience food or semi-finished products can meet the need of the fast pace of life: time saving, delicious and nutritious.

What is a staple food in China? Dai Xiaofeng, director general of the institute of agricultural products processing of Chinese academy of agricultural sciences, vividly depicts it as “the food holding in your hand or in the bowl in your hand at dinner, and those in the plate are non-staple food. Crops to be staple food must be planted in large areas with large-scale production, must be able to be store in quantity for a long time, must be accepted by most people to account for a major proportion in the three meals a day and be able to provide the energy and nutrition needed by most people. “Now the staple foods we are talking about are the grains, including potato," Dai Xiaofeng said.

Wang Xiaohu, director of the food and nutrition development institute of the Ministry of Agriculture, believes that compared with wheat, corn and rice, potato has a lot of advantages and that itself has the conditions to be a staple food. Dai Xiaofeng said despite fresh potatoes are high with moisture content, cannot be stored for long period and are inconvenient for transportation, we can process it into powder to store as dry material and it is more suitable for storage than wheat flour and rice. Potato cultivation in our country already has a history of 400 years, but potatoes are used as fresh vegetables for most of the time. Does this mean that the potato lacks the “mass support” to become a staple food?

Pan Wenbo said that potatoes had so far failed to naturally become a staple food of our country in the true sense; one reason was the traditional diet habits and the other reason was that the public understanding of potato’s nutritional value was not enough. For those two reasons, selections for potato varieties suitable for processing are insufficient, the research for corresponding formula, technology and equipments to process it into staple food is not enough and industrialization development lags behind. Dai Xiaofeng said that potatoes contain no mucedin, and when they are used to make steamed bread, noodles or other staple food, it is hard to take form or to be fermented; the noodles are easy to break for it’s too hard and cannot be cooked for a long period. At present, the Chinese academy of agricultural sciences has successfully developed steamed potato bread which potato flour accounts for 40% and potato noodles which potato flour accounts for 35% and other products, and preliminary factory production of these products have been under progress. At the same time, baking powder for steamed potato bread and pre-mixed powder for potato noodles and other series of products have also been developed. People can make steamed potato bread and potato noodles at home.

Does potato as a staple food mean that there is not enough food to eat and we are going to starve if we do not find alternative?

"This view is not accurate. I can responsibly tell you that grain production in our country is increasing year after year, our warehouses are full and food supply is adequate, and the national food security is guaranteed." Pan Wenbo said. The cultivated lands are very limited in China and we must stick to the deadline if we want to solve the problem of food supply. The attitude of the central government on this point is very affirmative. “On one hand we need to keep the red line on the quantity of cultivated land. According to the deployment of central government and cooperating with the Ministry of Land and Resources, we need to strictly implement the arable land protection system, speed up the delimitation of permanent basic farmland and give priority to the delimitation of high quality cultivated land around towns and traffic lines into permanent basic farmland for they are easy to be occupied. On the other hand, we need to stick to the red line on the quality of cultivated land. Starting from this year, the Ministry of Agriculture will further strengthen the construction of the inherent quality of cultivated land, take soil improvement, soil fertility, nutrient balance and repair of arable lands as the key points and focus on improving the quality of cultivated land." Pan Wenbo said that we would guarantee the absolute food security at all costs. Potato as a staple food is an important supplement to the absolute food security. Pan Wenbo said: "potato as a staple food is to ensure national food security; it is not to provide timely help but icing on the cake; it is to let people eat more healthy, nutritious and delicious food.” Pan Wenbo said, “the future development of potato as a staple food is not only to plant potato in northwest region, but to be more focused on the optimization of structural layout and, in particular, the development and utilization of cultivated lands which run idle in winter in South China. First, we need to promote water-saving technology in the northwest region to plant potato according to the local conditions. Second, we should make full use of the cultivated lands which run idle in winter in South China to promote the planting of potato and other crops. Third, we need to moderately switch to some water-saving crops including potatoes in north China and other regions suffering water shortage.

What is the focus of improving potato production when pushing potato as a staple food?

In recent years, the planting area of potato is stabilized at more than 80 million mu, and reached 84.219 million mu in 2013, and they are mainly located in the southwest, northeast, northwest and other regions. The planting goal of potato as a staple food is 150 million mu, and now it is only 80 million mu, so where should we expand the planting area? Pan Wenbo said, “a basic principle for expanding potato planting area is not to compete for land with the three major grains of rice, wheat, corn and so on. After the implementation of potato as a staple food, the key to expand the potato planting area is the development and utilization of the cultivated lands which run idle in winter in South China. At present, the cultivated lands which run idle in winter in South China is 100 million mu. Prices and market regulation determines what the farmers are going to plant. Another method is to improve the per unit yield. At present, the average yield of fresh potato per mu in our country is more than 1150 kilograms which is 20% lower than the yield of world average and less than half of the yield of developed countries. It is safe to say that the potential to increase per unit yield is tremendous, and is also practical and feasible.” As to the doubts of poor food output, low yield and more land coverage, Dai Xiaofeng said, “what I want to point out is that most of the potatoes are planted in areas of poor ecological conditions and on arable land of poor soil fertility. As far as I know, in some areas of Tengzhou in Shandong Province, the potato yield is more than 5000 kilograms per mu which is higher than that of wheat per mu. The next step to improve the yield of potato through scientific and technological progress is with great potential. In addition, about the genetically modified (gm) problem which a lot of people are concerned about, Wang Xiaohu said, “at present, China has not approved any gm staple food for commercial production, has not approved any commercial cultivation of gm potato variety, does not issue security permission to any gm potato and does not approve the import of any gm potato. Now, there are more than 100 varieties of potatoes for production in our country and they are conventional varieties mainly bred in the 1970s to 1990s and none of them is genetically modified variety.