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Asia

Sieren's China: Under the sign of the tuber

Beijing wants to establish the potato as another staple in kitchens across the country. The Chinese, however, are unlikely to change their eating habits that easily, writes DW columnist Frank Sieren.

After Spanish conquistadors brought back potatoes from South America to Europe some 400 years ago, the tasty tuber quickly found its way into cooking pots around the world. With the exception of China, that is, where it could not really establish itself. Potatoes are not exactly one of China's favorite foods. Yes, they do eat "earth beans" - a literal translation of the Chinese word for potato - but they regard it as a vegetable side dish, not as a way to still one's hunger. Rice is always that part of the meal. Consequently, the potato remained confined to the shadows - even the major fast food chains were unable to change that when they introduced French fries to an unsuspecting Chinese public in the 1990s.

But, Beijing is determined to implement that change now, declaring the potato is staple food number four alongside rice, corn and wheat. China's leadership has good reasons for this unusual move: The population continues to grow and needs to be fed. In 2020, there will be more than 1.4 billion Chinese. In the meantime, the country needs more than 50 million tons of additional cereals. Beijing has to be creative in order to ensure self-sufficiency. For some time already, China has been affected by a shortage of land suitable for additional rice and wheat production. Soils are often polluted, and it takes years for them to recover.

Potatoes less demanding than rice

With Chinese cities expanding more and more there is a growing shortage of arable land. Rice cultivation is time-consuming and requires ample water, which is lacking in China anyway. Potatoes would solve the problem, because they are much less demanding: they can be grown almost anywhere, they can cope with drought, they are cheap. Rice and wheat cultivations could easily be complemented by potato growth - ideal conditions for a reliable source of food.

Frank Sieren Kolumnist Handelsblatt Bestseller Autor China

DW columnist Frank Sieren

It may come as a surprise, but China is already the world's largest grower of potatoes with almost one third of the 330 million tons harvested worldwide per year coming from the Middle Kingdom. But only a small proportion finds its way onto domestic plates. Beijing now has plans to double the potato plantation area of currently 5.3 million hectares (11.7 million acres) by 2020 - an area the size of Iceland. It is certain, however, that additional plantations and higher yields alone are insufficient, if now, in some areas, there is already a surplus in potato production. They have to be eaten after all. While the annual per-capita-consumption in Germany is 60 kilos, the Chinese merely manage half that.

Chinese population has its doubts

They have their doubts about the "power tuber" and don't really know what to think about the government's plans. Whether potato brands such as "Linda" or "Christa" will make it onto the gastronomic hit list appears to be a question of image. Beijing will have to succeed in its efforts to take the potato out of its niche position.

Since the beginning of the year, China's leadership has been laboring to boost consumption. Newspapers are full of praise for the potato as one of the healthiest foods. Prominent potato advocates are going public via social media. And China's state television broadcasts a cooking show which presents potato dishes exclusively, in order to establish the modern trend in domestic kitchens. In future, the tubers will be cooked sweet-and-sour, or served as noodles or steamed buns, completely suited to Chinese tastes.

How such a campaign - food by order - can lead to eventual success may be difficult to comprehend for the rest of the world. In China, it wouldn't be the first time. Only ten years back, there was a shortage of milk and dairy products on the country's supermarket shelves. So Beijing launched a costly campaign, praising positive health effects, and the nation obeyed. A short time later, milk prices increased worldwide. 'The Chinese are using up our milk supplies,' was a popular saying at the time. It will probably take quite a while until they have used up our potato supply as well: For the time being, Chinese farmers are rather afraid of being unable to sell their tubers and are calling for a government-guaranteed purchase price.

DW columnist Frank Sieren has been living in Beijing for 20 years.