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A ‘nutritional giant’ at work: How the humble potato changed the world

A staple food for cultures across the globe, the tuber has emerged as a nutritional giant and the friend of peasants, rulers and sages. Even today, its possibilities are endless, writes Diego Arguedas Ortiz in an extensive and thorough investigation of the history and global influence of the potato. The article was published by the BBC Travel magazine, and we publish a brief introduction here.

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”.

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’.”

Indigenous communities in the Andes still have a close relationship with potatoes (Credit: Credit: International Potato Center)
Indigenous communities in the Andes still have a close relationship with potatoes
(Credit: International Potato Center)

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 Centro Internacional de la Papa (CIP), or International Potato Center, a research-for-development centre that researches and promotes all things potato-related.

Read the full article by Diego Arguedas Ortiz on the BBC website here.

Photo at the top: The International Potato Center created a map to show the global movement of the potato from its origin in the Andes (Credit: International Potato Center)

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Lukie Pieterse, Editor and Publisher

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