WHO KNEW? A SHORT HISTORY OF THE POTATO
“On its native ground, high up in the Andes, the potato was not traditionally mashed. Descendants of the indigenous peoples dehydrated their tubers in the mountain air, so they would keep forever and didn’t weigh much. Rehydrated, papas secas go in soup or get chopped or fried. You don’t find mashed potatoes in Cuzco next to your cuy chactado (split grilled guinea pig, head still attached). But when…. the Spanish Empire brought potatoes to Europe, it didn’t take long before cooks were boiling them until soft and then crushing them into a puree. The same civilization that had crushed a hemisphere took easily to turning hard tubers and other fleshy vegetables into malleable pastes smoothed out and improved in taste with fat.” Raymond Sokolov, The Cook’s Canon
It turns out that the humble potato not only sustained the Inca Empire, but fueled the rise of the West in 18th century Europe, underpinned the Industrial Revolution in 19th century England, created one of the deadliest famines in human history in Ireland during the same century and occasioned modern American agriculture’s dependence on fertilizers and pesticides.
Potatoes are a New World crop, first domesticated in what is now southern Peru and northwestern Bolivia between 8000 and 5000 BCE. They were a staple for the Inca Empire, and for the Spaniards who conquered the Incas and remained in Latin America mining silver. Sailors who returned to Spain from the Andes brought potatoes back along with the silver, and historians have speculated that tubers not eaten on the voyages were taken ashore and planted before the end of the 16th century. (The Spanish first thought potatoes were truffles, possibly because they are dug like truffles. The German word for potato is kartoffel, from the Italian tartufolo, which means truffle.)
Basque fishermen from Spain used potatoes as ships’ stores, and introduced them to Ireland when they landed there to dry their cod. The Spanish army carried potatoes when they travelled to outposts of the Spanish Empire in Europe and beyond, and peasants along the way adopted the crop. (This acceptance wasn’t always easy; potato leaves are poisonous, which led people to fear the tubers as well.) But it soon became clear that potatoes thrived in places and under conditions where most other crops failed. They were of enormous nutritional value; potatoes yielded from two to four times more calories per acre than grain did, boiled or baked potatoes were cheaper than bread, and they did not require a gristmill for grinding. Potatoes had a lower rate of spoilage than grain and their bulk easily satisfied hunger.
The arrival of the potato in Northern Europe virtually ended famine, which was routine in 17th and 18th century Europe. Potatoes were so productive that they effectively doubled Europe’s food supply, at least in terms of calories. By the end of the 18th century potatoes had become in much of Europe what they were in the Andes, a staple. An article in the November, 2011 issue of Smithsonian Magazine states that, “By feeding rapidly growing populations, (potatoes) permitted a handful of European nations to assert dominion over most of the world between 1750 and 1950. The potato, in other words, fueled the rise of the West.” Beyond building empires, potatoes also sustained English workers at home, underpinning the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century.
The International Potato Center in Peru has preserved almost 5,000 varieties of potato, and Andeans grew and still grow many different types. In Europe, however, all potatoes descended from a few tubers carried home by voyaging Spaniards. When, absent seeds, farmers plant pieces of tubers, the resulting sprouts are clones. Because growers planted just a few varieties of a single species, pests like the blight and beetles had a narrower range of natural defenses to overcome. The results, especially in Ireland, were disastrous.
Ireland was a conquered country, governed by the United Kingdom since 1801. Its lands were confiscated. During the 17th and 18th centuries (at least until the Emancipation Act in 1829), Irish Catholics (80% of the population) were prohibited by law from owning or leasing land, voting or holding political office, seeking an education or entering a profession. Landlords, usually English aristocratic Protestants, were granted huge swaths of Irish countryside which they managed using agents, or middlemen, who ruthlessly exploited poor tenants paid minimal wages to raise crops and livestock for export. The absentee owners enjoyed a guaranteed income but usually remained in England, visiting their Irish properties rarely, if at all.
As British colonials turned the most productive Irish land from farming to cattle grazing to support the demand for beef in England, the Irish were forced onto smaller, less tillable plots. Parcels became even smaller as the population grew and land was further divided within families. Potatoes thrived in the damp Irish climate, tolerated poor soil, were easy to grow and produced a high yield per acre. Irish cooking authority Darina Allen notes that “With only an acre or two of land a farmer could grow enough potatoes to support his whole family.” By the 18th century the potato became the base food for the poor, at least one third of the population, especially in the winter.
By the end of the 18th century, roughly 40% of the Irish ate no solid food other than potatoes; the figure was between 10 and 30 % in the Netherlands, Belgium, Prussia and perhaps Poland. Potato blight (phytophthora infestans) first broke out in the early summer of 1845 in Flanders, near the French border. It was in Paris by August and a few weeks later had reached the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and England. It was reported in Ireland in mid September.
Experts estimate that the Irish had planted slightly more than 2 million acres of potatoes in 1845. The blight wiped out the equivalent of three quarters of a million acres that year, more the next year, and still more the year after that. The attack did not abate until 1852. A million or more Irish died in one of the deadliest famines in history, and within a decade, two million more had fled Ireland, almost three-quarters of them to the United States. By the 1960s, Ireland’s population was still half of what it had been in 1840 and today it remains the only country in Europe, and perhaps the world, to have fewer people than it did in 1840.
Potato blight was a disaster, but it did not have to be a tragedy. The British response to the suffering Irish was a horrific example of English colonial cruelty. Armed with copies of Adam Smith, English officials governed Ireland in their own economic and political self interest with little concern for moral obligations they owed the local population. Some, in fact, viewed the Irish as racially inferior and responsible for their own circumstances. The fact that the English continued to export food produced in Ireland throughout the famine caused some historians to view British policy as a deliberate murder of the Irish people, of genocide by the terms of the Geneva Conventions.
But potatoes brought more than feast and famine from the New World. The Chincha Islands, three dry, granitic islands off the southern coast of Peru, have a sole function, to host a large population of seabirds which have nested there for millennia. The birds over time covered the islands with a layer of guano up to 150 feet thick. (It was said that the guano emitted such a stench that the islands were difficult to approach.) By the mid 18oos farmers had learned that potatoes (and other plants) relied on nitrogen for growth, and that guano was an excellent source of it; guanomania took hold. Peru exported more than 13 million tons of guano over a 40 year period, most of it dug under ghastly conditions by Chinese slaves. But that volume was not sufficient to meet the demand, and talk of invasion arose. In 1865 the U.S. Congress passed the Guano Islands Act authorizing Americans to seize any guano deposits they discovered. Over the next 50 years U.S. merchants claimed 94 islands, cays, coral heads and atolls.
In just a few years, agriculture in Europe and the United States became as dependent on high-intensity fertilizer as transportation is on petroleum today, a dependency that continues. And the second half of the “toxic treadmill” developed at the same time in the United States when growers discovered that a solution of copper sulfate could be sprayed on plants to kill potato blight, and that arsenic would kill the potato beetle, a second lethal threat to the potato crop. The modern pesticide industry began, and the rest is history….
Here’s an historical update: The United States government is now working with the International Potato Center to test, by growing potatoes in Peru’s high deserts, whether they can be grown to support future human life on Mars.