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Chilean researchers seek to recover drought-resistant desert potato

As part of a project of the Foundation for Agrarian Innovation (FIA), they will create a method of cultivation and marketing strategies for the desert potato.


Research sample.

The desert potato (Hoffmannseggia doelli) is undoubtedly a unique plant. It grows in extreme conditions, in full sun in the desert, under strong radiation exposure and at high altitude. In this area, rainfall is scarce, reaching only between 100 to 300 mm per year and there is also a high temperature fluctuation, with 40 ° C during the day and -8 ° C at night. This plant generates a small tuber, which is an attractive alternative as food in the current climate change scenario.

Think about the advance of desertification towards the center of Chile and the need to generate new crops that resist these conditions. It is the genesis of the project sponsored by the Pontifical Catholic University (PUC), with the support of the Foundation for Agrarian Innovation (FIA) that aims to establish the desert potato as a new crop capable of growing in marginal soils.

It will be four years of work with this plant. Although the desert potato has not been cultivated, there are records that it was collected and consumed by the ancient locals and shepherds who roamed this area of ​​the Atacama desert. Dr. Rodrigo Gutiérrez, main coordinator of the project, has studied for more than 10 years different plants that grow in the desert, including Hoffmannseggia doelli. Among the most notable results, Dr. Gutiérrez's team has revealed that the desert potato has great nutritional value, being rich in potassium, fiber, iron and magnesium.

“This plant forms tubers in its roots that in ancient times were food for native peoples. It also stands out because it grows in soils with low nitrogen availability, which is a key nutrient. For this, we will carry out the execution in different centers and one of them is the Millennium Institute of Integrative Biology (iBio), which has a long history in the field, ”says Rodrigo.

Innovation and context

Specifically, the project on the recovery of the desert potato was one of the 29 initiatives promoted in the last National Call for Projects 2020-2021 of the Foundation for Agrarian Innovation (FIA), and that responds to some of the strategic challenges of the sector, such as water efficiency and adaptation to climate change.

In this scenario, one of the main challenges facing agriculture is adapting crops to stressful environmental conditions, also bearing in mind that increased productivity is required to feed the growing world population.

“One option to address this problem is the use of ancestral crops, currently not promoted since industrialized agriculture has opted for more profitable crops, however the revaluation of endemic ancestral plants opens a new opportunity. This project proposes to establish the desert potato as a new crop capable of growing in marginal soils. To achieve this objective, it is expected to standardize a potato cultivation protocol in drought conditions and low nitrogen availability and transfer it to a potato producer association in the north of Chile ”, says the executive director of the FIA, Álvaro Eyzaguirre.

To try to position this plant as a crop, Dr. Viviana Araus, from iBio and part of the team, explains that standardize a protocol for cultivation and management in conditions of drought and low nitrogen availability, and they will transfer all the knowledge to the Association of farmers from Socaire, in northern Chile. She also contemplates the design of a marketing strategy for desert potato products in the national market to support farmers.

On the other hand, it seeks to include farmers in the optimization of the protocol, by carrying out field tests in direct collaboration with workers in the northern part of the country. “We will deliver the protocols to them to carry out the desert potato cultivation tests and we will receive their observations of the process, taking into consideration the farmer's knowledge and the construction of joint knowledge with the technical team of the project. Finally, we hope to finish the project with a sustainable product in time that allows the commercialization of this potato”, concludes Araus.

It is important to note that this initiative is part of the work that FIA is leading in the northern macrozone to install a Natural Laboratory for Desert Agriculture. Whose objective is to install a roadmap to study and promote agriculture adapted to extreme phenomena.

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