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How the humble potato changed the world

How the humble potato changed the world

In his 1957 essay collection Mythologies, the French philosopher and literary critic Roland Barthes called chips (la frite), a food that comes from a crop native to the Americas, “patriotic” and “the alimentary sign of Frenchness”.

Despite its origins in the Andes, it’s an incredibly successful global food

Just a century earlier, a potato disease prompted a famine that halved Ireland’s population in a few years, producing a decades-long cascading effect of social and economic turmoil. And as you read these lines, the world’s leading potato producers today are China, India, Russia and Ukraine, respectively.

Despite these nations’ intimate and complicated relationships with potatoes, and how intertwined their societies and economies are with them, none can truly call them native. The humble potato was domesticated in the South American Andes some 8,000 years ago and was only brought to Europe in the mid-1500s, from where it spread west and northwards, back to the Americas, and beyond.

“Despite its origins in the Andes, it’s an incredibly successful global food,” said food historian Rebecca Earle, who’s tracing the potato’s planetary journey in a forthcoming book called Feeding the People: The Politics of the Potato. “It’s grown practically everywhere in the world, and practically everywhere, people consider it one of ‘our foods’.”

For the rest of the world beyond the Andes, the potato might not be autochthonous, but it feels local. Earle calls it the “world’s most successful immigrant”, as its origin has become unrecognisable for producers and consumers everywhere. Idaho farmers in the US and gnocchi-loving Italians will claim the potato as much as any Peruvian, because its story is not only that of a country or of a region, but an account of how humans have reconfigured their relationship with land and food within a few generations.

The potato is the world’s fourth-most important crop after rice, wheat and maize, and the first among non-grains. How could an Andean tuber persuade the world, in just a few centuries, to adopt it so completely?

What made the potato so irresistible was its un-rivalled nutritional value, its relative easiness to cultivate as compared to some major cereals, its ability to easily navigate wars and tax censuses due to its knack for hiding underground from collectors, and in particular, its camaraderie with working men and women in the fields.

A good place to understand its origins is the International Potato Center (IPC), a research-for-development centre that researches and promotes all things potato-related. It’s set in an arid suburb in the Peruvian capital, Lima, and harbours a collection of thousands of potato samples from across the continent.

“The Andes is where the biggest genetic diversity lies, but you can find potatoes from Chile to the United States,” René Gómez, senior curator at the IPC genebank, told me there.

He explained that potatoes were domesticated high in the Andes, near Lake Titicaca, nearly 1,000km south-east of Lima. Following domestication, these early potatoes spread through the cordillera and became a crucial food supply for indigenous communities, including the Inca, particularly as a staple foodstuff called chuño, a freeze-dried potato product that can last years or even decades.

Out of the Americas

In 1532, the Spanish invasion brought an end to the Inca but not to the cultivation of potatoes. The invaders took tubers (the underground parts of the plant we call potatoes) across the Atlantic, as they did with other crops such as tomatoes, avocados and corn, in what historians call the Great Columbian Exchange. For the first time in history, the potato ventured beyond the Americas.

These early Andean varieties had a tough time adjusting to Spain and other parts of mainland Europe. Day length is very constant across the year in the equatorial region where potatoes first were domesticated, so the potato plant was used to regular days with 12 hours of sunlight, said evolutionary geneticist Hernan A Burbano Roa.

European long summer days confused the potato plant, and tubers didn’t grow during the favourable warmer months; instead, they did so in the autumn, too close to the frosty early winter days to survive. The first decades of planting in the Old Continent proved unsuccessful.

But then potatoes found better conditions in Ireland, where a cool but frost-free fall gave the crop enough time to mature after its introduction from Spain in the 1580s. A century of farmer selection produced a variety that set tubers earlier in the summer, and the potato took the mantle it would carry for centuries: the staple crop of peasants.

The humble tuber

Villagers prized potatoes because they provided an unmatched nutritional yield per hectare. In Ireland in particular, tenants rented the land they tilled, so as lords increased their fees, they were forced to produce as much food as possible in the smallest possible area. “No crop produced more food per acre, demanded less cultivation and stored as easily as the potato,” wrote sociologist James Lang in his book Notes of a Potato Watcher.

Potatoes contain nearly every important vitamin and nutrient, except vitamins A and D, making their life-supporting properties unrivalled by any other single crop. Keep their skin and add some dairy, which provides the two missing vitamins, and you have a healthy human diet staple. You even have 2g of protein for every 100g of potato; eat 5.5 kilos per adult per day, if one’s to believe some estimates of consumption in mid-1600s Ireland, and you have a good supply.

landless tenants in 17th- and 18th-Century Ireland, a single acre of land cultivated with potatoes and one milk cow was nutritionally sufficient for feeding a large family of six to eight. No cereal could claim that feat. Thus, began the centuries-long captivation among Irish and British peasants with the potato, grounded in rented earth and scarcity.

From the British Isles, potatoes spread eastwards across peasant fields in Northern Europe, writes Lang: they were found in the Low Countries by 1650, in Germany, Prussia and Poland by 1740 and in Russia by 1840s. After farmer-selection filtered out those varieties and genes less adapted to local climate conditions, it flourished.

Villagers in the war-ravaged European plains, by conflicts such as the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years’ War, quickly discovered another advantage of planting potatoes: they were really hard to tax and plunder. “If you have a field of wheat, it’s really visible. You can’t hide it”, said Earle, who claims tax collectors can visually measure their size and return in time for the harvest. But underground potatoes are well hidden, and you can dig them up one by one, as needed. “Such piecemeal harvesting hid the crop from tax collectors and protected the peasant’s food supply in the war time,” said Lang in his book. “Marauding soldiers laid waste to field crops and raided grain stores. They rarely stopped to dig up an acre of spuds.”

The elites and military strategists of the time noticed this. Prussia’s King Frederick the Great ordered his government to distribute instructions on how to plant potatoes, hoping peasants would have food if enemy armies invaded during the War of the Austrian Succession in 1740. Other nations followed suit and by the time of the Napoleonic wars in the early 1800s, the potato had become Europe’s food reserve, according to a report by the Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations (FAO).

In fact, tubers were such a valued crop during wartime that “every military campaign on European soil after about 1560 resulted in an increase in potato acreage, down to and including World War Two,” wrote historian William McNeill in his 1999 essay How the Potato Changed the World’s History.

Nutrition and power

In a matter of centuries, potatoes entered the European and global economies as a staple crop. For decades, food historians (such as those noted in this FAO booklet from 2008) have explained this spread as the result of well-meaning Enlightened sages obsessed with the nutritional properties of the tubers that managed to persuade a reluctant and conservative populace to adopt the potato.

But Earle has her doubts. It was peasants who adapted the potato to Europe, she argues, thus they needed no persuading. Elites did not discover a new crop, but rather, they had a novel idea of what healthy food was. Instead of placing a “superfood” in the middle of European diet, they realised that nutrition needed to take a more central role and looked around for those crops that might serve their purpose.

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