Potatoes may help feed Ethiopia in era of climate change


Semagn-Asredie Kolech, left-center, with a group of Ethiopian farmers

With unpredictable annual rainfall and drought once every five years, climate change presents challenges to feeding Ethiopia. Adapting to a warming world, the potato is becoming a more important crop there – with the potential to feed much of Africa…

Ethiopia sits on the brink of thriving financial and gross domestic product forecasts, as its government formally merges green economics with climate-change resilient policies. But the country’s agricultural economy suffers from poor cultivation practices and frequent drought. However, new efforts – including Semagn-Asredie Kolech’s research – are beginning to fortify the country’s agricultural resilience, reducing the threat of starvation and bringing on the rising possibility of exporting potatoes to other African countries.

Annually, Ethiopian farmers plant potatoes in the spring and late summer. Yet, they still search for optimum planting dates and vie for vibrant drought-tolerant varieties if planted in the short-rain season, and sidestepping late blight, if planted in the longer rainy season.

At an Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future forum in March, Kolech presented preliminary research gathered last summer. He surveyed Ethiopian farmers in potato-growing regions to understand their varietal inventory and crop practices. Farmers tried new varieties, but they often reverted back to using their traditional cultivars…

Kolech said that he found that the usage drop-off is due mostly to poor storage quality. New varieties have good attributes, such as high yield and late blight resistance, but in northwestern Ethiopia where more than 40 percent of potatoes are grown, the potato color and taste changes in storage earlier than the local varieties…

In 1970 Ethiopian farmers planted less than 30,000 hectares of potatoes. Today, more than 160,000 hectares are planted. With a population of 93 million and a land size almost double that of Texas, Ethiopia can accommodate growing 3 million hectares of potatoes, Kolech says.

The environmental and economic prospects for Ethiopia are so intriguing, this June five Cornell faculty members…will travel with Kolech to Ethiopia to meet with potential government and nongovernmental collaborators. Their travel will be funded by Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and a collaborative CARE-Cornell Impact through Innovation Fund.

Bravo! The sort of activist education and research that helps define a leading university.

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