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Chinese workers sort potatoes arriving at a McCain frency fry factory in Harbin.

Natalie Behring/The Globe and Mail

China has a new miracle food in its quest to feed its people's ever hungrier mouths: the humble spud.

Authorities with the country's Ministry of Agriculture recently decreed that the potato will be a central pillar of national efforts to increase harvests and feed a wealthier population with the means to buy more food.

Calling it a "perfect" food packed with vitamins, authorities laid out plans to double the number of hectares devoted to the potato. That means 50,000 square kilometres of new spuds, an area nearly the size of Nova Scotia.

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"It seems like their intent is to re-engineer the food consumption patterns, to somehow induce people to eat potatoes instead of rice and wheat noodles," said Fred Gale, a senior economist who tracks China for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It "does seem unrealistic – but China has been coming up with unrealistic programs for decades."

Chinese authorities are desperate to find ways to grow more food, amid expectations that its national grocery bill will double by 2050. Chinese food intake will grow by 50 billion kilograms by 2020 alone, Beijing forecasts.

The government of the water-starved country sees numerous virtues in a tuber that is drought-resistant and can be cultivated with less water and energy than other starches. The potato is also the only crop that can be grown nationwide and help raise incomes in rural areas.

The Ministry of Agriculture calls it "an ideal modern food" and says it's time to "upgrade" its status, to become "the staple food on ordinary people's dining tables."

But getting people to eat more spuds may require some potato propaganda. They don't exist on the list of belly-filling staples, defined as rice, noodles, corn or bread-like products, that are usually eaten at the end of a meal to make sure no one goes away hungry.

Ask a restaurant for potato as a staple and "they would look at you like you were crazy," said Lillian Chou, a former food editor for Gourmet magazine who lives in Beijing.

The Chinese word for potato, tudou, has peasant connotations (a Chinese dish approximating mashed potatoes roughly translates to "potato mud"), and much of the country has grown up on wheat and rice.

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Another member of the potato family, the sweet potato, is further burdened by history: Its nutritive qualities made it an important food during times of shortage. "People during times of famine only had potatoes, so they look at it with great bitterness," Ms. Chou said.

The World Potato Atlas traces the first crop to Dutch settlers in Taiwan at the dawn of the 1600s. Not long after, Russian missionaries and Siberian traders introduced potatoes to northern and central China. The addition of New World crops such as potatoes to China helped bring about a population explosion.

And because they thrive in cooler high-altitude areas, potatoes have played a unique social-welfare role by creating income for impoverished mountain villagers. For the same reason, they have been among the country's cleanest crops: Poor farmers don't have money to buy pesticides (although today, Chinese potatoes grow in ground that is often contaminated by heavy metals) .

It's clear, however, that Beijing sees the potato as a bit of culinary salvation, as its existing crops tread water. Researchers, including some from McGill University, recently found that yields have stagnated on fully 79 per cent of Chinese rice land and more than half its wheat and maize land. For some crops, even the best modern agriculture may succeed in coaxing only 18 per cent more from the ground.

Compare that with the potato: A hectare of Chinese land produces less than half as many potatoes as PEI's red soil, meaning there is more room for growth. (Some of the Chinese potatoes have Canadian roots: One of the four most popular varieties is the Agriculture Canada-bred Shepody.)

It's an open question, though, whether China can get anywhere near doubling its potato acreage. The country harvests 15 times what Canada pulls from the ground each year and 22 per cent of the global total – an output that has, in the recent past, already proven too much. In 2010, after a surplus of production, Beijing launched a "patriotic potato campaign" to prod consumers into buying enough to prevent financial calamity for farmers.

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Groups such as the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences have predicted Chinese potato consumption will actually fall by 11 per cent by 2050.

Farmers, too, may take some convincing before they grow more spuds. Many were scarred by the 2010 glut and the subsequent violent prices swings; current prices are half what they were a year ago and are down near 2010 levels.

The amount of land planted with potatoes "is not going to expand if they merely ask it to," said Li Jingyu, who tills 33 hectares of potatoes in Inner Mongolia. Most of the eligible land has already been converted, because potatoes were, for a time, more profitable than other crops. But those days are over, and farmers now find potatoes are far more work than rice. Worse, even Mr. Li isn't totally sold on the merits of his crop.

"Potatoes don't taste as good as other staples. They are mainly made into French fries, but the market for that is almost saturated," Mr. Li said. "Without a guaranteed purchase price from the government, it will be impossible for me to expand."

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