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Idesia (Arica)

versión On-line ISSN 0718-3429

Idesia vol.33 no.1 Arica feb. 2015 

Volumen 33, N° 1. Páginas 3-11 IDESIA (Chile) Diciembre 2014 / Enero-Febrero, 2015


In memory of Andrés Contreras, President of the Asociación Latinoamericana de la Papa (ALAP): ¡The potato is from dark America!

Pablo Marcos Espinoza Concha

Department of Spanish
Faculty ofEducation and Humanities
University of Tarapacá
Arica - Chile


It is hard to find a space in the agenda of the agronomist Andrés Contreras Méndez (Algarrobo, age 61. three children). His days are long; he runs from his house in the Cabo Blanco sector of Valdivia to carry out his activities of teacher, researcher and director of the Instituto de Producción y Sanidad Vegetal of the Facultad de Ciencias Agrarias of the Universidad Austral de Chile (U.A.Ch.).

In the archives of history his name is inscribed as the president of the organizing commission of the XXI Latin American Potato Congress; the fifth Latin American Seminar on the Potato; Uses and Marketing; the X Reunión de la Asociación Chilena de la Papa (ACHIPA); and the Second Iberoamerican Congress ofResearch and Development in Potatoes, activities celebrated in Valdivia on 7-12 March. He was satisfied with the result, and said that he did what needed to be done. He commented that "240 people attended, 125 of themfrom other countries; there were 138 studies, and unfortunately, as usual veryfew of them were Chilean..." For his trajectory and for his love for what he did, Andrés Contreras is no doubt much more.

After these "union" activities -that qualified the potato as the "universal delight", and Contreras as an obligatory journalistic intervuew for national and international media- he returned to his area, the field. This occurred after his customary defense of the "first love of his life", his professional motivation and his truth-potatoes.

He has a blind faith in the original potato varieties, and believes strongly that with a combination of government and industry efforts these could be exported to the demanding markets of the developed world. "It is even an anti-oxidant!" he insists happily. With this, Valdivia and all the south of Chile would be favored with an intense economic activity; it is only necessary to look at what is there and live in harmony with the environment. He suggests that Chile should be appreciated more, "I don't understand why people always think that the foreign is always better than what we have, I don't understand. Sometimes I think we have a hereditary problem!" he comments angrily. "Just look at history-potatoes and corn changed the dietary habits of the whole world!"

He also cannot understand why the management ofthe Instituto Nacional de Desarrollo Agropecuario (INDAP) and the Servicio Agrícola y Ganadero (SAG) did not join the activities where the future of such an important crop were debated. "They are the ones who work with small farmers, who perform technological transference, and they don't train themselves; this is terrible!" He summarizes by saying "To improve Chilean agriculture there must be a change in mentality; we must act at all levels to be competitive, efficient,form alliances and associate to obtain better prices. Now were are in the times offree trade agreements", he emphasizes.

Solanum tuberosum, of the family Solanaceae?

8 A. M. Andrés Contreras looks fixedly at his computer screen; he moves the mouse with his left hand and arranges an idea into a paragraph. While he reads we observe his dominions, we enter into his world, which is written with eight letters; potatoes! There is no doubt of this, and he makes it clear. Books, photographs, slides, calendars and posters demonstrate his professional activity as a student of this plant genetic resource. Behind him, hanging on a wall, twenty credentials confirm his participation in national and international congresses and seminars about this crop. In the door, as required reading, two signs welcome you: I love potatoes and Eu amo la batata.

-Andres, how did you come to study potatoes?

-In my third year of agronomy in the UACh, Professor Sergio Mora had us prepare a seminar; he had a list of themes that integrated studentsfrom the third to fifth years-the course was given at noon on Wednesdays. One of the themes was classification of the potatoes ofChiloé; to myfriend Edgardo Barría I said "man, this is your subject, since you are from Chiloé". Edgardo answered that he was bored with potatoes and would choose a theme on wheat. The truth is that I didn't know what I was getting into, so I went to talk to professor Mora. I asked him what I would have to do and he answered "Just work, but first let's go to the experimental field so you can see the material".

What did you find?

He showed me something that shocked me. I knew potatoes as they are served, and in a free market I had seen pink and yellow potatoes. But when I started to see in baskets elongated potatoes, blue potatoes and two-toned potatoes, and when I cut one and I saw pigmented flesh, I was so fascinated that I immediately said I wanted this theme. I couldn't not take it!

What did you do with the theme?

-I developed a general classification. When I reviewed the literature on their morphology Ifound references of the greatest taxonomists in the world and I wrote to them. To my surprise they answered me, and this was so marvelous that I felt I was doing something important. That is how my history started-and I got the maximum grade on my seminar.

-And in terms of the "nitty gritty"?

-After my seminar, which I prepared in three months, I told my professor Sergio Mora that I didn't want to leave the subject; that I would make it my thesis. I did that in the next three years, and after my final exam I was hired by the Servicio Agrícola y Ganadero in Osorno; for a year and a half I was in charge of the plant sanitary area.

-And potatoes?

-There I worked with farmers of the agrarian reform in seed certification, and there I ran into potatoes again. I taught courses and strongly increased the certified area. I took seeds of cereals and vegetables to the Universidad Austral, which was the only institution that could do the analyses and certify the material, and I used the opportunities to talk with professor Mora. One time he told me "Andrés, you have to come back to the University, we want you to take charge of the potatoes and teach a couple of courses. That's why I came back to the U.A.Ch.

-Do you think potatoes are currently an important crop?

Yes, and not just because they are my specialty and I know something about them. The potato is one of the crops that, due to its volume, its energetic quality and some amino acids, is tremendously important in feeding people. Just look at history-it was always considered thus in Latin America, and when it was brought to the Old World and began to be developed, it also became very important there. Due to its importance and the production volume, by 1840-1845 it was transformed into a monoculture; this fomented the disease called late blight (Phythophthora infestans), which even now is the biggest problem it has. In 1845-1847, this disease produced the great European starvation in which more than a million people died, and the largest migrations to America in history.

-Has it been given the importance it deserves?

-In our continent, perhaps because we have it so close, we haven't developed adequate varieties and techniques to increase its production. This is because we live with potatoes. As an example, mean yields in more advanced countries are 45-46 tons per ha, while in Latin America yields are only 13-14 tons, but even with this production and its uses it is tremendously important.

-Do we need to look for varieties that were used in the past?

-Let's look at from another viewpoint. Our world is in continuous evolution, and so are human beings. Sometimes we produce much more accelerated evolutionary development in plants and animals than nature would achieve. When the starvation occurred in Europe, the quasi-scientists of the time, who didn't know Mendel's laws, asked themselves where they could find "new blood" to introduce into their diseased varieties and thus improve them. It has been known since antiquity that crossing between animal species helps to obtain resistance to certain problems. When they began to look in the centers of origin of cultivated plants, especially potatoes, theyfound many places in Latin America.

-In this viewpoint, what are the most important zones?

-We have to mention the Peruvian-Bolivian highlands and Chiloé. There are many native varieties cultivated in both zones that evolved with humans, and many other wild varieties. They took a number of them and found some much more resistant to pests and diseases, with better yields and different qualities.

-Then do we have to look to the past?

-For us it is not looking in the past, but rather searching in the centers of origin for the material that still remains and has valuable genetic variants, both to obtain new varieties and to obtain better nutritional quality for people. These variants developed naturally and responded to environmental conditions. They are cultivated varieties that humans adapted to their use-without much technology, of course-that have interesting conditions for consumption currently.

-Where did the potato originate?

-It has always been said that the potato isfrom "Dark America"; it is found from the southern part of the Rocky Mountains in USA to the Chonos Archipelago in Chile. In the Andes Range there are multiple species and native varieties. The greatest center of diversity is in what we call the Peruvian-Bolivian-Chilean-Argentinean Altiplano, which evolved with humans. This is the main center.

-And what is the importance ofpotatoes from Chiloé?

-In Chiloé we find a great variety of native potatoes which are considered secondary, although not less important. Here is material that,for use by developed countries, can be improved more rapidly since it has the same photoperiod. Chiloé potatoes develop between 35° and 38° S latitude, as in the Northern Hemisphere, and thus new varieties may be produced more rapidly. The example that illustrates this occurred in 1850, when the Chilean variety Púrpura casposa (Rough Purple Chili), which is a variety from Chiloé, was brought to Europe via Panama. The development this produced in the Old World was explosive, extraordinary and so important the even today it is one of the varieties most used in genetic improvement. Almost all, if not all of the European potatoes have their ancestors in this variety. This also happened in North America, where 90% of the genetic material comes from the variety.

Let's value our products! -Professor, how can we convince consumers to buy local varieties?

-This is a slow process. Since the beginning of our Republic we have been brainwashed that everything the conquerors brought was better than what was here, our own. This is our great dilemma. In the Latin American culture we have a pattern, almost genetic, that says that the foreign is better than the local; this is a great mistake.

-We don't appreciate the local varieties?

-As Chileans we don't value our own things.

We have to make a radical change towards a process of re-engineering to maximize our varieties, our genetics and our plant species. This is a complex theme. Not just for potatoes, there are also sweet pepino, tomato, beans and a number of other plants, both vegetables and fruits. Much of this material has been taken by developed countries, and now we have to pay royalties to get it back.

-How can we achieve this?

-Perhaps we scientists are at fault. I feel we lack good promotion to show what we have, and to indicate what we can do. The human resources are here; just look at how many professionals in higher education and government positions got their doctorates abroad. What is lacking is the means, the economic resources, businessmen who will invest and value the plant genetic resources of the country.

-How can we motivate them to invest in the sector?

-It would be important for businessmen to obtain, after the appropriate research, a novel product with which to win in the market. One example is the murta (Ugni molinae), which was taken to Australia, and after a process of genetic engineering is commercialized as Golden Berries, when it is really ours, it belongs to all of us!

-Do you consider that this is a good opportunity for private investors?

-It would be worth asking them what we will do with the rich material we have in the calafate, maqui, avellano, strawberries and the ornamental, aromatic and medicinal plants. These have an infinite genetic richness. We aren't given the resources to do research, or perhaps more simply, we don't know how to sell these ideas to private investors. The government can support the research, but not productive activities; this is the job of businessmen, who know how the free market functions.

-Apply re-engineering?

-Re-engineering has to aim to maximize the mentality of our consumers. In the case of the potato, the idea is that we can use this material here or enter the external market with a new product, with attractive colors, high protein content, and best of all, antioxidants.

-How do you evaluate the local businessmen who are in the potato market?

-They use mainly European varieties. What I propose is to enter the market, both internal and external, with a new product. Here we should have the support of PROCHILE for its promotion. The businessman is efficient in the productive part, but can only move to foreign markets if and when it has governmental support.

-What similar experiences to you know about?

-The clear example is Holland. They are now the new home of the potato. They have done a great job in seed potatoes and industrial potatoes; they export to more than 150 countries. It must be noted that they had tremendous state support to enter the market. This is what we need, for the government to sponsor what Chile produces, to strengthen exportation and external commercialization. This is the only way; private companies can't do it alone.

-What should be the specific role of the government?

-Support efforts with existing institutions. For example, the Agriculture Ministry, through the Servicio Agrícola y Ganadero, should show the world that Chile can produce potatoes free of quarantine diseases. With this, buyers would have no problem with acquiring them. This does not occur by signing Free Trade Agreements with Europe and North America; they imposed their measures for tariffs.

-In what do these consist?

-They are plant sanitary problems that they don't recognize, and that simply put, do not allow us to export potatoes. Thus free trade is quite relative. The country is recognized as a whole, but not the regions which are completely healthy to produce seed potatoes of potatoes for consumption. If they did, we could reach the European market with no trouble and with varieties as good as or better than those of the Old World.

-How should we handle this fight?

-With other governmental measures. Private enterprise cannot handle this. It is the government which has to try to put the discussion of this point on the table. If they impose measures for plant sanitary tariffs, we should do the same for their products.

-If we solve these difficulties, how do you see the future of exportation for Valdivia?

-Very bright, and not only for Valdivia. The IX, X and XI regions have very interesting areas. The entire country has high producer-exporter potential, although to achieve this producers must be stimulated to achieve quality products. Then the government must stimulate them and achieve international recognition for the areas. They will have to demonstrate and certify both the climate and the soils, and to indicate where these products are generated.

-Can this be achieved by partnering?

-Of course! A producer alone goes nowhere! The competition produced by globalization is quite strong. It doesn't say much if one exporter produces, it is the region which must do it. Thus we won't have to aim only at Europe and North America; we have to look at all of Asia-Pacific. If we could sell one to potato to each person in China we would probably produce double the current cultivated area. For this we need ingenuity, daring, creativity, partnering, cooperation and to do things very well. We have to reach out with our products and stop being the trampoline of the European varieties. We have such richness in Chile, and that is the point!

-How much would it cost the country to certify this eco-region as free of diseases?

-I don't think it would cost much. For years the Servicio Agrícola y Ganadero has studied and analyzed the soils where potatoes are planted. They know very well the current and potential places and the areas that are healthy. There must be a strong propaganda program. There is not much more research needed to determine which zone is the best, since the background information is already available. We have to bring foreign missions here and send missions abroad so they will understand the benefits of our country.

-But have you been doing this all your life?

-I will finish with an anecdote. When I speak to the experts of the Asociación Latinoamericana de la Papa, I always show photographs of potato plantations of southern Chile. They are spectacular photographs, with the volcano and clouds in the background. They always say "Here comes Andrés to talk about Chile and its potential!" But now, when they were here for the Congress, we took them to Puerto Octay, Frutillar and Puerto Varas to show them the crops, the soil, the climate, the volcano and the production. They said "Here it seems that God was with you!" They saw the country as something extraordinary. It was a pleasure to hear them exclaim "You have a lovely country, take care of it! Now we will try to change our economic perspectives with Chile". We have to invite buyers and show them what we have in situ; this isn't a cost, it is the best investment.

We will leave Andrés Contreras Méndez painting his dreams of a better future for the entire southern part of the country. In addition, as a lover of horse races would say, this agronomist, who swapped the sun of Algarrobo for the rain of Valdivia, is just rounding the first turn of life. When he crosses the finish line, which he drew more than 40 years ago, he will re-invent it, since he considers that "There is still much left to do for the good of Chile and leave your heart in the earth".

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