Move over rice, the potato is taking root in China

A vendor smokes a cigarette in front of sacks of potatoes piled up on a truck at a whole sale market in Taiyuan, Shanxi province in this Feb 17, 2014 file photo. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
A vendor smokes a cigarette in front of sacks of potatoes piled up on a truck at a whole sale market in Taiyuan, Shanxi province in this Feb 17, 2014 file photo. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (China Daily/Asia News Network) - Officials in China are coming up with ways to get consumers to eat more potatoes and less of the traditional staple of rice, a water-guzzling crop, as the country seeks to rely less on imports.

Economic planning authorities say the move is aimed at producing more food from the country's limited supplies of irrigation water as grain imports continue to increase.

The country's top economic planning body said on Thursday that a programme to add potatoes to China's list of food staples will be expanded substantially.

Xu Shaoshi, minister of the National Development and Reform Commission, said potatoes will be mixed into bread, steamed buns and noodles to suit Chinese consumers' taste and habits.

The Ministry of Agriculture will ensure that potatoes comprise up to 30 percent of the materials for these products, Xu said.

"As many compound food products have already been made and tested, the potato will soon be Chinese people's newest staple food, after rice, wheat and corn," Xu said at a meeting in Beijing to discuss national grain distribution work.

According to information obtained from the meeting, the Ministry of Agriculture is planning for 50 percent of China's annual production of potatoes to be consumed as a staple food on the domestic market by 2020.

Still, officials said rising consumption of potatoes will not compromise land already cultivated for wheat, rice and corn.

Hu Zengmin, an analyst at the China National Grain and Oils Information Centre in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, said development of potatoes as a new food staple will help China to optimise its food resources and strengthen security of its future grain supply.

Hu said China has continued to import more international grain, in particular corn and wheat, in recent years.

This is because its rising grain output cannot catch up with increasing consumption and diversified food varieties, including two big grain users-the modernised food supply chain and livestock.

Sun Maojun, a researcher at the Institute of Food and Nutrition Development under the Ministry of Agriculture, said that besides guaranteeing China's food safety, making the potato a staple is also crucial to protecting the diminishing water table in the drought-prone northern plain.

"Potatoes need much less water than grain, giving hope that the arid north has a sustainable future," Sun said.