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Peru plants seeds of self-sufficiency

Unlikely as it might seem, Peruvian potato scientists are coming to the rescue of Afghanistan's devastated agricultural fields.

After U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan, looters destroyed the country's only large seed bank, where samples of the country's rich agricultural heritage had been carefully stored in case of emergency.

With no local source of seeds to help farmers jump-start the domestic production of crops, international aid agencies have turned to a coalition of agricultural experts, known as the Future Harvest Consortium to Rebuild Agriculture in Afghanistan.

Scientists at Peru's renowned International Potato Center have joined the search for suitable seeds, using its own gene bank _ the largest in the world _ to regenerate the local crop.

"We are already there (Afghanistan) training farmers to multiply seeds very quickly," said Christine Graves, head of communications for the potato center, known by its Spanish acronym CIP. Scientists at the CIP's station in New Delhi recently sent a 25-ton truckload of locally grown kufri seeds to Kabul, and are working on cloning more.

Meanwhile, scientists back in Lima are studying which variety is best suited to Afghanistan's conditions, taking into account factors such as local rainfall, latitude, altitude and plant diseases.

Peru is the world's undisputed home of the potato, which was first domesticated by Andean farmers 6,000 to 8,000 years ago on the high altitude shores of Lake Titicaca. Today the country boasts about 4,000 native varieties, as well as thousands more types of tubers and sweet potatoes. They are stored at the CIP's refrigerated Gene Bank, where some 12,000 plant-lets are grown under bright lights in test tube in vitro cultures.

Ideally suited to harsh mountain conditions and rich in vitamins C and A, potatoes are now the fastest growing major food crop in developing countries.

The first batch of seeds, which arrived in Kabul in late September, will be used to build new stock. "We don't want them to eat them," said Dr Enrique Chujoy, a plant geneticist at the CIP's Crop Improvement and Genetic Resources Department. "They are too valuable. They need to create their own stockpile of seed potatos to distribute to farmers," he added, saying it will take about three to five months for the first batch to produce new seed potatos.

Although the potato plant does produce tiny seeds, as well as a pretty flower, unlike other plants it is most easily reproduced from the potato tuber itself. When planted, each potato produces about a dozen or more new potato "seeds." If all goes well, the initial 25-ton batch will produce 500 tons early next year.

It will be up to local authorities to decide how much of that harvest to put on the food market and how much to reinvest in increasing the seed bank.

Chujoy said the consortium planned to get more than 7,000 farmers involved in the use of improved seed as a platform for reintroducing the potato as a national food crop.

"The idea is for them to become self-sufficient in seed production. We want them to be empowered by being part of their own success," he said.

The seven-year plan envisages increasing local production by at least 58-million tons a year, creating a crop with an added value of about $7.5-million.

Scientists in Lima are already studying new varieties for Afghanistan. They hope to boost local production using what they call "clean seeds," tested to ensure that they are free of the diseases and imperfections that have degenerated locally available seeds over the years.

Kufri seeds grown in India and Pakistan are close to the local Afghan varieties. Scientists are now experimenting with Andean and faster-growing European varieties such as cardinal and desiree. New varieties are being selected for testing and will be sent to the region from Lima as in vitro plantlets.

Other members of the aid consortium are working on boosting local production of lentils, wheat, grapes and almonds.

The CIP, which was founded in 1971, believes that the potato and other tuber and root crops can play an important role in preventing starvation in developing countries, as well as helping farmers rise out of poverty.

Scientists in Peru are currently working on commercializing other tubers, including the maca, known as Peruvian Viagra. Legend has it that Inca warriors used it as a tonic on their return from battle. The mashua had an opposite anti-aphrodisiac effect and was given to troops going into battle.

Scientists are also testing the indigenous yacon, which produces a natural calorie-free sugar not absorbed by the body, of potential benefit to dieters and diabetics. They are also investigating the commercial exploitation of Peru's numerous potato varieties to market multicolored _ and flavored _ potato chips.