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.
So says Diego Arguedas Ortiz in an article published on the BBC’s website. He reference food historian Rebecca Earle’s observation in her book Feeding the People: The Politics of the Potato: “Despite its origins in the Andes, it’s an incredibly successful global food,” she writes, “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 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.
According to a paper published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics in 2011, the population in Europe and Asia exploded after the spread of the potato. According to the researchers, the tuber introduction accounts for close to one-quarter of the growth in Old World population and urbanisation between 1700 and 1900.
“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 William McNeill. in a paper titled “How the Potato Changed the World’s History.”
The potato frenzy continued unstoppably until a blight paved the way for the Great Famine of 1845-1849 in Ireland. The failure of the crop, compounded by the utterly inadequate response by the British Government in London (which decided against relief and bet on market forces), led to the death of a million people, the emigration of one million people to the US and the steady departure of two more million elsewhere. Ireland’s population was halved in a matter of decades.