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Seed Guardians of Peru’s Potato Park: Preserving Diversity and Adapting to Climate Change

From potatoes to quinoa, many beloved foods face threats such as climate change and disease. Peru’s Potato Park, home to “seed guardians,” is dedicated to preserving indigenous potato varieties and their vital role in culture and food security.

The potatoes thriving in the Andes of South America are more than just a dietary staple; they embody a rich cultural heritage. With over 1,300 distinct varieties growing in the Andean mountains, these potatoes exhibit a spectrum of colors and shapes, from purple, pink, red, and black to white and yellow. Some are so knobby that peeling them can bring tears to your eyes, while others demand unique preparation methods. Each variety boasts a descriptive name reflecting its appearance or role in local customs, such as “the-one-that-makes-the-daughter-in-law-cry.”

However, these remarkable vegetables now have an additional vital role – adapting to climate change and its associated challenges. Potato Park, situated near Pisac, Peru, was established in 2002 by six indigenous communities. Its mission is to safeguard the genetic diversity of the region’s potatoes, alongside the cultural heritage of those who cultivate them. Beyond potatoes, the park nurtures other native Andean crops like maize and quinoa. The agricultural practices developed here over millennia have built resilience against extreme weather conditions, like those caused by El Niño. Farmers strategically vary planting locations and harvest timings across the park’s nearly 10,000-hectare reserve.

Potato Park not only conserves numerous potato varieties at risk of disappearing but also assesses which existing varieties can best thrive amid the expected extremes of climate change. Potatoes have been cultivated in the Andes for about 8,000 years, grounded in diversity, which is the key to their resilience.

This endeavor at Potato Park is part of a broader initiative worldwide aimed at preserving and adapting valuable food plants facing threats like climate change, habitat loss, pollution, and neglect. While seed banks, such as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, are essential for crop diversity and food security, in situ conservation, where crops are preserved through cultivation in their natural habitat, is equally vital. This method allows crops to continuously adapt to real-world conditions. Small-scale growers, including peasant farmers and backyard gardeners, play a crucial role in preserving global seed diversity. Research suggests that the majority of this diversity resides with the world’s 2.5 billion smallholders rather than in gene banks.

By conserving crops through cultivation, they undergo continuous adaptation to real-world conditions. This approach empowers farmers to influence how crops evolve over time by selecting those best suited to local conditions or cross-breeding desirable traits. In situ conservation ensures that plants adapt to actual field conditions, not just laboratory conditions.

Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit organization based in Iowa, USA, is dedicated to preserving heirloom seeds. Their open-pollinated seeds allow growers to save their own seeds year after year. They engage a network of 700 gardeners across the US, helping identify varieties that adapt best to various environments. Additionally, Seed Savers Exchange collaborates with gardeners to cross-pollinate different varieties, creating new, resilient crops.

This adaptive process is crucial for developing crops that can withstand extreme weather and climate change. Unlike creating new varieties in controlled environments, in situ conservation enables existing varieties to adapt naturally to changing conditions. It harnesses the inherent genetic diversity within open-pollinated varieties.

In Potato Park, researchers have observed that ideal conditions for various potato varieties are moving to higher, cooler altitudes due to rising temperatures. However, the availability of suitable land at high altitudes is limited. Consequently, farmers are guiding potatoes to re-adapt to lower altitudes.

The key lies in the inherent genetics of these open-pollinated varieties, allowing farmers to navigate and adapt intelligently without relying on technology to create something entirely new. In essence, it’s about utilizing nature’s intelligence encoded in these crops to ensure their resilience in the face of a changing world.