Getting rice-loving China excited about potatoes

To get China excited about eating more potatoes, what we need is a really good mascot. Fortunately, the US has one waiting in the wings. Dear Mr Potato Head, Greetings from China! You are probably as surprised to get a letter from Beijing as I am surprised to be writing to, well, a plastic doll with really ugly shoes. After all, as Buzz Lightyear said in that famous movie: "You are a TOY!" But Buzz Lightyear and Woody also won the hearts of millions of fans-who remember you from the same movie-and that's where you come in.

You see, China has a lot of mouths to feed. And while Chinese people love rice like life itself, rice requires a lot of manual labour and a LOT of water. China doesn't have as much water as it needs, and as deserts creep into farmlands thanks to climate change, it's getting less practical to grow rice in many places.

Potatoes, on the other hand, don't need much water and seem to thrive in lousy soil-which China has a lot of. So agriculture experts have convinced the Chinese government that potatoes would be a good way to reduce the country's dependence on rice, much of which has to be imported.

The problem? Chinese people LOVE rice. They don't love potatoes, though, being tolerant folks, they think potatoes are just fine for other people. Mayans, maybe.

I think the answer to this image problem is: Mr Potato Head.

You may be a toy, but if you don't mind my saying so, you are one hot potato.

Most importantly, kids all over the US grow up with you, giving you different looks by inserting different eyes, noses, maybe a mouth puckered in a whistle or a smoochy face. And you have lots of fun accessories: the Hasbro company makes versions of you with a suitcase for traveling, a stethoscope for doctoring, even a Transformers version of you. How cool is that?

All of those doo-dads make you interactive-a must these days in the youth market-and to make potatoes a winner as a food staple it is critical to win over the kids, who are going to be eating machines for decades.

Mr Potato Head, you may not be convinced-yet-that you are the man for the job. But come to China and check out what makes this culture tick.


Who will ever forget the Fuwa, the lovable "Friendlies" that were the mascots of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing? That fab five (Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying and Nini) generated tons of excitement for the games-and megatons of merchandising sales. Now I've got your attention, right?

Two years later, the smiling blue figure of Haibao was whipping up enthusiasm for the Shanghai Expo.

Of course, officials in government and industry here understand this. Beijing recently hosted the World Potato Congress, but it was more a festival of agricultural hardware than food´╝Źdespite some cooking demos and some really big posters of french fries. (China currently imports potatoes for about 60 per cent of the fries now sold here, I was told.) But there wasn't a fun cartoon character singing out: "Potatoes! Yum, yum! Let's eat some!"

For this really to work, we need to get people excited about more than just potato dishes like those delicious slivered potatoes dressed in vinegar like they make in Yunnan province. We need people to enjoy the flavor of 'taters as a matter of course, so the don't flinch when potato flour turns up in their noodles and steamed buns.

That's where The US No 1 spud comes in. You.

One potential problem: despite your lovably lifelike aspects, you're... um, plastic. A little bit unappetizing.

But we can solve that rather easily. Since you already come with so many fun accessories, let's add one more: a small bottle of cologne.

It should smell like french fries.