As food prices around the world climb, Idaho's potato growers are hoping a renewed push for their products brings a healthy return. But they're also pushing potatoes as a way to help hungry people abroad who can't afford much else.
In Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, hungry residents burned tires recently and protested in the streets over food prices spiraling out of reach - spiking as much as 45 percent since the end of 2006 and turning staples like beans, corn and rice into closely guarded treasures.
In Cairo, Egypt, the military is baking bread to stave off anger over high food prices and a repressive government.
The skyrocketing cost of food staples, stoked by rising fuel prices, unpredictable weather and demand from India and China, has sparked sometimes violent protests in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia.
The World Bank estimates that food prices have risen by 83 percent in three years.
Meanwhile, growers back in Idaho say they may have a piece of the solution: Idaho's famous potatoes.
"It goes back to the United Nation's declaration of 2008 as the International Year of the Potato," said Frank W. Muir, president and CEO of the Idaho Potato Commission.
The commission is working hard to capitalize on that declaration and provide viable options that will not only provide not only food for the world but put cash in the pockets of Idaho spud growers.
"The potato is the best nutritional return for the buck," said Muir, whose commission is focusing on increasing raw potato exports.
"A medium-sized potato costs only about 12 cents," he said. "But it has about 100 calories, and it's filled with protein, fiber and other nutrients. It's considered a nutrient-dense food."
TINY CREATURE, BIG PROBLEM
But a tiny stumbling block stands in the way of getting Idaho spuds to starving people abroad.
It's a microscopic worm found in the dirt in a handful of potato fields, mostly in southeastern Idaho.
The potato cyst nematode, which munches the roots of potato plants, is the reason governments in Mexico and some other developing countries have cited in refusing imports of U.S. raw potatoes.
"If a country can prove they don't already have it in their dirt, they have an effective argument for keeping Idaho potatoes out," Muir said. "And so we try to use science and do testing to improve the market."
He said a stepped-up effort by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in partnership with Idaho potato farmers has helped to identify specific fields with nematodes.
"We can quickly identify the acres with (the nematode) and regulate it," Muir said. "Then we have to work with the national organizations, such as the U.S. Potato Board or the National Potato Council in Washington, D.C., to have a unified voice to help with our exports."
HIGH-PRICED 'FAMOUS POTATOES'
Another barrier to helping feed poor people could be the "Famous Potatoes" brand itself. Idaho, known throughout the world as the producer of quality potatoes, has brought prosperity to spud farmers.
That means Idaho potatoes are bringing premium prices in hotels and restaurants in Hong Kong and Macau, the only places in China that allow them.
"They love our potatoes," Muir said. "And they are willing to pay a premium price for a premium product."
That's good news for spud farmers in Idaho, but it means little to a family in Sri Lanka surviving on rice and beans.
For that reason the Idaho Potato Commission recently launched an outreach campaign to help renew interest in potatoes as a viable crop internationally and infuse money where it will help the most.
Through its Recipe Relief project it will provide money that goes directly to UNICEF, an international charity that provides nutrition, clean water and education to children in more than 150 countries.
"We don't designate how they use the money," Muir said. "We know they'll use it in the best way possible."
In countries where wheat flour and rice are becoming hard to come by, potato flour is growing in popularity.
"We've made some inroads in Asia with potato flour and our frozen products," Muir said.
THEY GROW ALMOST ANYWHERE
Even if they don't buy Idaho potatoes, foreign nations are turning to potatoes to help feed themselves.
Potatoes can be grown in almost any climate, require little water, mature in as few as 50 days and can yield more food per acre than wheat or rice, the Reuters news service reported. Peru's leaders are encouraging bakers to use potato flour to make bread as a money-saving alternative to wheat flour.
"China and India are leading the world in developing their potato industry," Muir said. "That's partly because potatoes are easier to cultivate than wheat and rice. And in developing countries growing potatoes can be laborious, but they also have a labor force that can do the work."
Experts say there is no quick fix to the spike in commodity prices because there are so many variables, from strong demand for food from emerging economies like China's to rising oil prices to the diversion of food resources to make biofuels.
Meanwhile, Idaho growers will continue to work9 with agricultural leaders to increase yields, develop food science and tout the benefits of Idaho spuds to the international market.
David Kennard: 377-6436. The New York Times and the Associated Press contributed to this story.