Portraying lazy people as "couch potatoes" is a libel on a vegetable with an important role in feeding a hungry world, say participants in a conference on the future of the potato.

"The potato yields more nutritious food quicker on less land and under harsher climates than any major crop," said Robert E. Rhoades, a potato researcher stationed in the Philippines."The idea of a lazy potato is a contradiction in terms," he said.

But Rhoades told the Smithsonian Institution meeting on "Feeding the Global Village" that the potato has been belittled ever since it was carried back to Europe following Christopher Columbus' voyage.

There's an improbable rumor, he said, that "spud" comes from the acronym for the "Society for the Prevention of an Unwholesome Diet," a group that was dedicated to keeping potatoes out of England.

The Scots originally refused to eat potatoes because they weren't mentioned in the Bible, he said, and through the ages the potato has been accused of causing syphilis, rickets, tuberculosis and lust.

In actual fact, the spread of the potato offers a second chance to support a population that is outracing its capacity to feed itself, the conference was told. It is grown in 126 countries, from the Arctic to the tropics, atop mountains and in the desert.

The first chance was the "Green Revolution," which started in the 1960s and kept millions alive by developing high-yield strains of rice, corn and wheat, but never fully lived up to its promise.

China, the world's rice bowl, has replaced Poland as the second largest potato producer, behind the Soviet Union. India is in fourth place, the United States fifth.

The potato's foremost champion at the conference was researcher Richard Sawyer, founder and director general of the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru. He said his interest was sharpened when he subsisted on stolen seed potatoes while a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany.

Changes in the way potatoes are planted promise to make this vegetable, packed with protein and vitamin C, potassium, iron and magnesium, widely available in poor lands where it has been too expensive.

Rhoades said farmers in the tropics can harvest potatoes within 50 days of planting, a third of the time it takes in colder climates. Wherever temperatures drop at night, potatoes can be grown, he said.

Since they grow so fast, they can be planted in fields used at other times of the year to raise rice or wheat, he said.