Across Regions, Health/Nutrition/Food Safety, South, Central America

‘Nutritional giant, friend of peasants, rulers and sages’: How the humble potato changed the world

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?

Diego Arguedas Ortiz, a science and climate change reporter for BBC Future, explains in this great article, published by BBC Travel: What made the potato so irresistible was its unrivalled 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.

“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 CIP genebank, told Ortiz at the International Potato Center (CIP) headquarters in Lima, Peru.

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 became a crucial food supply for indigenous communities, including the Inca. In 1532, the Spanish invasion brought an end to the Inca but not to the cultivation of potatoes. The invaders took tubers across the Atlantic, and the potato ventured beyond the Americas.

At Virgilio Martinez’s restaurants, diners can try a handful of Peru’s almost 5,000 species of potatoes (Credit: Cris Bouroncle/Getty Images)
At chef Virgilio Martinez’s restaurants,
diners can try a handful of Peru’s almost 5,000
species of potatoes (Credit: Cris Bouroncle/Getty Images)

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.

“Potatoes, by feeding rapidly growing populations, permitted a handful of European nations to assert dominion over most of the world between 1750 and 1950,” wrote Willaim McNeill, a historian who penned the essay How the Potato Changed the World’s History.

“The food produced by a field of potatoes is… much superior to what is produced by a field of wheat,” wrote Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. “No food can afford a more decisive proof of its nourishing quality, or of its being peculiarly suitable to the health of the human constitution.”

With the global versatility of potatoes, the possibilities are endless, writes Ortiz.

Source: BBC Travel. Read the full article here
Author: Diego Arguedas Ortiz, a science and climate change reporter for BBC Future. He is @arguedasortiz on Twitter.
Photo: Indigenous communities in the Andes still have a close relationship with potatoes (Credit: International Potato Center)

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