By Niu Shuping and David Stanway
BEIJING (Reuters) - Once seen as food for the poor, the humble potato is being pushed in China as a tasty, nutritious part of any meal as the world's most populous country struggles with water shortages and looks for alternatives to the traditional rice and noodles.
China already produces 95 million tonnes of potatoes a year, a quarter of the global total, and is aiming to raise that to 130 million tonnes by 2020, government officials said at the World Potato Congress on the outskirts of Beijing this week.
"In China, the potato industry is no longer an industry for underdeveloped areas or the poor, but highlights the country's modern agricultural drive and enriches people's dining tables," Agriculture Minister Han Changfu told the conference.
Beijing has begun this year to promote the potato as more of a staple food, particularly as a substitute foodstuff for grain, an idea that has taken on urgency as water problems threaten to undermine food security, vital for political legitimacy.
The North China Plain is suffering as a result of decades of excessive underground water use by both industry and wheat farmers.
In some parts of Hebei, the third-largest wheat-producing region, farmers have been banned from growing wheat in order to preserve underground water. Excessive digging for irrigation has caused subsidence and even landslides, the local government has said.
David A. Thompson, president of the World Potato Congress, told reporters that potatoes would serve China's plans to improve agricultural sustainability.
"Potatoes provide more energy and protein per acre than other crops," he said.
The congress was held in Yanqing, a suburb of Beijing around 100 km (62 miles) northwest of the city center, where a 12,000-square-metre international potato center has been built along with a museum for the vegetable and a potato breeding center.
"Small potatoes, stand up and become a staple to ensure the country's grain security," urges a banner outside the museum.
In an exhibition hall, potatoes are used to make dozens of different types of food, including popular local fare such as steamed bread, noodles and dumplings as well as western-style pizza and even cookies.
"Potatoes can make hundreds or even thousands of dishes, as well as more than 200 types of staple and western-style food," said Zhang Aiguo, a cook at the exhibition.
"If more and more consumers get to know that potatoes have more nutrition, they are willing to take them. People nowadays care more about quality and healthy food," said Zhang, holding a big plate of steamed bread made with potatoes.
(Reporting by Niu Shuping; Editing by Alan Raybould)