INTERNATIONAL POTATO CENTER: WORLD POTATO ATLAS
HISTORY AND OVERVIEW
(Please note: The name Myanmar, derivative of Myanma Naingngandaw, has been promoted by the country's military government since 1989. The previous national name, Burma, is used when referring to events prior to that date.)
The potato (Solanum tuberosum L.) was introduced to coastal areas of southern Asia in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century, most likely by Portuguese mariners, but the circumstances of its introduction to the area of contemporary Myanmar are not known. The earliest documentation of potato in British colonial Burma dates to the mid-nineteenth century, referring to diffusion into the territory by either or both of two possible trade routes, British India or China (Mason, 1851, p. 133; cited in Laufer 1938, p. 93). A.S. McClean (1932) argued for a Chinese origin since the popular variety in the early years of British control was called Tayok, or "Chinese Potato." Another agronomist of the era, F. Mason, wrote (1851), "The potato is of easy culture but the tubers are very small, and it is not an object of cultivation, although with a little attention, it might possibly be made one."
By 1882, potatoes were being grown using seed tubers imported from Britain (Myanmar Agricultural Services (MAS) 1990). In 1892, production was encouraged by two varieties introduced from India, a small variety known as the kidney potato and another called the Bengal potato. The export of potatoes to India was beginning during this period as roads were opened (McClean 1932). In 1893, the people of several villages in the Karen Hills planted tubers with some success (Watt 1893). As has happened in many other places, the potato had to overcome some initial suspicions, however unfounded. McClean (1932) noted that during the early years of potato cultivation, many people believed that potato consumption caused goiter.
By 1915, sixteen varieties of potatoes were cultivated in Burma based on additional seed tubers from Britain, a process which would continue into the 1930s. Further increases in potato production occurred due to the occupation of the country by Britain during the Second World War, and the expansion of an export market to India. The potato had established itself on a commercial scale by 1950 in the Shan Hills, the area of Burma which still accounts for most national production, relying predominately on Up-to-Date, a variety introduced around 1914. Several other varieties were introduced from the 1950s through the 1970s, but Up-to-Date remains the country's major variety.
As of 1989, approximately 116,000 tons of potatoes were grown on 14,000 hectares, with yields averaging eight to ten tons per hectare. Potato was ranked fourth in area under cultivation among sixty major food crops (MAS 1990). By 2001, total production was estimated at 245,000 tons, grown on 23,000 hectares, indicating gains in average yields to over ten tons per hectare (Myint 2001). That upward trend through 2007, both in area and yield, is summarized graphically below. However, most potatoes in Myanmar are cultivated in areas of higher altitude, generally coinciding with areas where control by the central government is most contested. Data quality should threfore be considered tentative, with a strong possibility that actual production exceeds the quantity reported.
GEOGRAPHY AND PRODUCTION ZONES
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The distribution of potato cultivation in Myanmar has apparently remained fairly stable over the past several decades. A CIP mission to Burma in 1982 noted that production is concentrated in three areas: the Shan Hills (60 - 70 percent) to the east of the country; areas adjacent to rivers in the Magwe, Sagain, Mandalay, and Kachin States (25 percent); and the Chin Hills (8 - 10 percent) to the west (CIP/Burmese Mission 1982).
The Shan Hills area is clearly the major production region; more recent estimates place potato production at 75 percent of the national total (MAS 1990). However, the predominance of this area is based on extensive cultivation, not high yields. As of the late 1980s, average yields were reported in the range of eight to ten tons per hectare (Nyunt 1989; MAS 1990).
Altitudes range from 1,000 to 1,500 masl, characterized by undulating plateaus of rich alfisols and river flats of silty clay loams. Organic matter is typically in the range of three percent to five percent, with relatively high cation exchange capacity and a pH in the range of 6 to 7. The climate is one of mild winters, cool dry springs, and warm wet summers. The landscape of the Shan Hills is one of savanna type vegetation and some tree cover. Since population density is low, farmers can rotate crops and graze animals. Other major crops include maize, beans, and peanuts.
Peter Vander Zaag, formerly the CIP Regional Director for Southeast Asia, described the Shan Hills as an area where "for over 100 years potatoes have been grown with virtually no inputs...What makes this such an attractive location for the potato crop? The elevation...providing a cool climate, a very dry winter breaking the cycle of pests and diseases, strong Tibetan winds eliminating aphids and potato tuber moth, and a low human population density permitting an adequate crop rotation" (MAS 1990).
Other areas of significant potato production include alluvial flats adjacent to rivers, and the Chin Hills. Areas adjacent to rivers (of which the Irrawady is by far the longest) are utilized for a winter cool season crop produced on the alluvial flood plain after the waters have subsided. Potatoes grown in the Chin Hills region are predominately a rainfed crop produced for local consumption under shifting cultivation on small plots. Given its remote location, little information of this area is available; production estimates are highly variable (MAS 1990).
PRODUCTION SYSTEMS AND CONSTRAINTS
Potato cultivation occurs primarily in two seasons, each corresponding to a particular production zone.
Rain (Spring) Crop
Rain crops are grown in the upland plateaus, generally above 1,400 masl and concentrated at latitudes of 20° to 23° North. In the Shan Hills, potatoes are planted into dry soil in April or May and are harvested in August or September. Potatoes in the Shan Hills are generally grown as part of a crop rotation consisting of three stages. Land is fallow for one to two years while weeds are communally grazed. Other crops, typically maize, are grown the second season. Potatoes are planted during the third season, sometimes interplanted with soybeans or groundnuts (CIP/Burmese Mission, 1982).
Land is usually plowed, often with the use of animals, but rarely with tractors. (Even if tractors were available, they would be difficult to use on the mountain slopes where potatoes are typically grown.) Soil amendments might include manure or ash, but rarely synthetic fertilizer.
Seed tubers are generally provided by the previous local harvest, typically having been stored in baskets or on floors in homes. An estimated thirty percent of production is used for seed (CIP/Burmese Mission, 1982). Plant density is relatively high; typically five to seven seed tubers are planted per mound, with a total density around 100,000 plants per hectare (MAS 1990).
Potatoes can be grown as a spring crop in the warmer valleys with peat soils, planted from February to May. This crop covers only a small area, estimated at 1,000 ha, but it is intensively cultivated and managed. Yields can average over twenty tons per hectare, most of which is sold quickly for a high price (MAS, 1990).
The 1982 CIP Mission noted that potatoes are sometimes grown in irrigated paddy areas following the harvest of rice, and that this crop is most likely to utilize inputs such as chemical fertilizer. However, this production system has not been noted in subsequent literature.
Lowland River Bed (Winter) Crop
A winter crop is also possible at the end of the monsoon season, in November or December, along receding riverbeds throughout much of Myanmar. Land preparation is demanding, since excess sand must be removed, and more fertile alluvial deposits are leveled to just above the water table. Seed tubers must be obtained from the summer crop in the Shan Hills, hence are likely to still be physiologically young. Although this system contributes relatively little to Myanmar's total production, yields are typically among the highest, harvested from January to March when prices are high. The highest average yields for the country (approximately thirty tons per hectare) have been recorded at Magwe, in the central western region of the country, far from the Shan Hills which supply the seed tubers (MAS, 1990).
Disease and Pest Constraints
To date, little research has been published pertaining to disease and pest constraints of potato production in Myanmar. For more detailed technical information of particular diseases and pests (though not specific to Myanmar), please refer to the relevant sections of:
Constraints known to exist include:
- Late Blight: reported as annually occurring, effecting primarily the summer crop in the Shan Hills (MAS, 1990; Myint 2001). Late blight is the single most serious biological constraint to potato production in Myanmar, and worldwide.
- For more detailed information, please see the Global Initiative on Late Blight (GILB) Myanmar Profile.
- Bacterial wilt: also reported for the summer crop, but relatively minor;
- Viral diseases (particularly potato leaf roll virus, or PLRV): present, but severity of impact on yields is not known;
- Tuber moth (Phthorimaea operculella): also present, but of relatively minor effect;
- Cut worm (Agrotis spp): widespread during the early part of the summer season in the Shan Hills;
- Epilachna beetle (Epilachna acellata): reported as a serious problem during early June when the crop is in its growth stage (Sikka 1985 and 1986);
- Other insect pests which have been identified, but are not yet thoroughly investigated, include root-knot nematodes (Meloidogyne spp) and aphids.
Myanmar depends very heavily on one variety, Up-to-Date (UTD; please see the "Varieties and Seed Systems" section). Lacking additional germplasm inputs (at least since the 1930s) and a national program to distribute seed, farmers have been continuously cultivating UTD using seed tubers from the Shan Hills. From 1986 to 1989, researchers at the Payapyu Farm in Taunggyi, Shan State (1,000 masl) investigated whether the consistently low yields of UTD are due to viral degeneration, or if yields are limited more by general conditions in Myanmar.
Five experiments were undertaken, comparing locally available UTD with UTD from Australia (UTD 83, UTD 84), Scotland (UTD 86), and Ireland (UTD 87). A randomized complete block design was used with two or three replications, 160 to 200 seed tubers per treatment. All tubers were of similar age, stored via DLS, and grown with applications of manure and synthetic fertilizer, as well as fungicides and pesticides.
Yields of local UTD were in general not significantly different from imported UTD, although the imported tubers yielded somewhat higher where overall average yields were highest, suggesting that as the yield potential increases, the potential benefit of healthier seed tubers likewise increases. However, under the conditions facing farmers in the Shan Hills and elsewhere in Myanmar, without the high level of inputs utilized in experimental treatments, local UTD continues, at least as of 1989, to demonstrate remarkable resilience.
However, these experiments might be at least as significant for their implications regarding the Shan Hills as for the qualities of the UTD variety. Testing for viruses by ELISA demonstrated that local UTD probably carries Potato Leafroll Virus (PLRV), and possibly other viruses, PVS, PVX, and PVY. However, all tubers multiplied from newly introduced material were free of virus. Researchers have speculated that strong winds from the Tibetan plateau might help reduce the population of aphids which often transmit viral infection, as noted above in the remark by Peter Vander Zaag. Since PLRV is easily identified, farmers apparently have been diligent in their elimination of diseased tubers. Researchers concluded, "The significance of this result confirms why the Shan Hills used to export seed to India during the 1930s and 1940s. The Shan Hills can still be a major seed source for other Asian countries and for local use without a major seed program" (MAS 1990, p. 37).
VARIETIES AND SEED SYSTEMS
Since the potato's introduction into Burma, first documented in the mid-nineteenth century, a large number of varieties have been used by farmers. The earliest recorded attempt to improve the potato came with the introduction in 1890 of a variety from Bengal which is still today cropped in Burma under the names Thinbaw or Bengali. In 1900, the variety Puritan was introduced from England. It is still grown today under the name of Sitbo, although the latter name has also been attributed as a common name for the variety Up-to-Date (Myint 2001).
Beginning around 1915, the Burmese Agricultural Department introduced sixteen varieties, three of which have been widely accepted and remain the dominant varieties of today: Up-to-Date, Great Scott, and Ally. Up-to-Date (UTD) is by far the most popular in spite of its susceptibility to late blight. A Myanmar Agricultural Services report of 1990 indicated that "The cultivar UTD presently occupies nearly all of the potato growing area" (MAR 1990). Ally is the second most widely grown variety, and local varietal mixtures are also planted throughout the country (CIP/Burmese Mission 1982).
A review of Myanmar's potato production system by a team of scientists from Myanmar and CIP in 1982 resulted in the introduction of germplasm of over fifty cultivars from the Philippines, Bangladesh, and the Netherlands. A series of thirteen experiments was performed to assess relative performance under varying conditions, including: fertility responses; yields under varied cultural practices such as spacing, mulching, and planting depth; seed source and selection; and a comparison of tuber storage in Diffused Light Storage (DLS) vs. semi-dark and dark storage (MAS 1990).
Germplasm evaluations were undertaken utilizing management practices not generally available to farmers in Myanmar, such as applications of manure and synthetic fertilizers, and the spraying of fungicides and insecticides. There was a wide variance among the newly introduced cultivars, but very few consistently out-yielded Up-to-Date. In one trial, UTD out-yielded 23 foreign varieties which had shown promise in previous evaluations. General results, however, were very inconsistent given environmental variables, such as early season rainfall and late season blight severity. In general, UTD has proven to be well suited to the Shan Hills, given its proven capacity under sub-optimal conditions and good storability. Ongoing germplasm evaluation and selection is focused on late blight resistance, not a strong factor for UTD.
The informal seed system provides virtually all seeds to farmers, since there is currently no "formal" seed production scheme (i.e. via a government agency and/or private enterprise). As noted above, the rain season crop from the Shan Hills provides the majority of seed tubers to potato production elsewhere in Myanmar, except for the Chin Hills area which, due to its inaccessibility, is apparently self-reliant in seed. (CIP/Burmese Mission 1982; MAS, 1990).
CONSUMPTION, STORAGE, AND MARKETING
Annual per capita potato consumption in Myanmar is still generally low, at slightly above four kilograms (Myint 2001), though considerably higher in the Shan State and other areas of higher production. Little information is available regarding specific transportation and marketing channels used for potatoes, though obviously seed tubers from the Shan State do get around.
Seed tubers, at least as of 1990, remain the only available planting material for potato cultivation in Myanmar. Adequate storage is therefore essential to sustainable production. Farmers in the Shan Hills typically store tubers in baskets in dark areas of their homes. The resulting seed tubers are likely to exhibit long pale sprouts which may either break off or remain attached at planting.
To evaluate the potential for Diffused Light Storage (DLS), eight storage experiments were conducted at Payapyu Farm, Shan State, from 1984 to 1989, using small, medium and large sized tubers of UTD (MAS 1990). Potatoes were stored either in DLS, in semi-darkness, or in complete darkness. Yields of seed tubers in DLS were generally higher than those stored otherwise, but the differences were generally small and not much greater than the semi-darkness treatment. Tuber size did not correlate with significantly higher yields. As of the conclusion of these experiments, DLS was being recommended to farmers where storage in darkness is the most commonly practiced storage method.
Policy changes, perhaps underway, could allow for potato production and consumption to grow significantly. In theory, farmland in Myanmar belongs to the state. Farmers can be granted the right to use land, but not to exchange, transfer, lease, or mortgage it. To maintain cultivation rights, farmers have been obliged to deliver given quantities of particular crops at official prices to the government procurement system. This policy has been most significant for paddy rice, the national staple, but also applies to crops such as cotton, sugarcane, jute, and rubber (Okamoto et. al. 2003). Although potatoes have been marketed free of direct government production and pricing constraints, the obligatory production and procurement of other crops has likely diminished potato production.
Some liberalization has occurred since 1988, but an obligatory system remains in place, and the official price of paddy rice remains artificially low. There is some evidence that household incomes are generally higher in peripheral areas, farthest from the effective control of central authority (Okamoto et. al. 2003), including the Shan State and most other areas of relatively high potato production. If agricultural production and marketing in Myanmar truly become more liberalized, the potato might expand well beyond its current niches.
RESEARCH FACILITIES AND CONTACTS
From 1930 until 1984, very little formal potato research was undertaken in Burma (MAS, 1990). The International Potato Center (CIP) and Myanmar Agriculture Service (MAS) undertook several years of collaborative research, some of which has been briefly reported here.
There are no agricultural research facilities in Myanmar specifically dedicated to the potato. The Central Agricultural Research Institute (CARI), founded in 1954, is the most general research facility at the national level.
Myanmar Agriculture, sponsored by the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, provides some information about agricultural production and ministry organization.
Kelly Theisen is the principal contributor to the revised (2006) Myanmar potato chapter, some sections based on the previous edition by Robert Rhoades, Robert Hijmans, and Luisa Huaccho.
CIP/Burmese Mission. 1982. Potato Production in the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma. August 8-21. Rangoon, Burma.
Laufer, B. 1938. The American Plant Migration, Part 1: The Potato. Anthropology Series, Field Museum of Natural History, Publication 418, Chicago.
MAS (Myanmar Agricultural Services) and the International Potato Center (CIP). 1990. Potato Research and Development
in Union of Myanmar (1983-1989) Rangoon and Manilla.
Mason, F. 1851. Tenasserim or Notes on the Fauna, Flora, Minerals, and Nations of British Burmah and Pegu. Maulmain.
McClean, A. 1932. The Potato in the Southern Shan States. Department of Agriculture, Rangoon, Burma.
Myint, Maung Maung. 2001 Potato Late Blight in Myanmar. Journal of Agricultural University of Hebei.
Nyunt, Daw L. 1982. Potato Improvement in Burma. International Potato Course. International Agricultural Centre, Wageningen, Netherlands.
Okamoto, Ikiku; Kyosike Kurita; Takashi Kurosaki; Koichi Fujita. 2003. Rich Periphery, Poor Center: Myanmar's Rural Economy Under Partial Transition to Market Economy. Yale University Economic Growth Center and the International Affairs Council of the Yale Center for International and Area Studies.
Sikka, Lyle. 1985. Report on Visit to Burma from August 25 to September 1, 1985. (Trip Report, CIP).
Sikka, Lyle. 1986. Basic Tuber Seed Production in Non- Traditional Seed Areas: Bangladesh and Burma as Illustrative Cases. (Trip Report, CIP).
Watt, George. 1893. A Dictionary of the Economic Products of India. Vol. 6. London.