The potato (pl. potatoes), also called Irish potato or white potato or, informally, spud, is one of the world's most important foods. It ranks as the fourth-most-important food crop, after corn (maize), wheat and rice and ahead of soybeans. It provides more calories and more nutrients, more quickly, using less land and in a wider range of climates than any other plant. However, it is hard to store and ship long distances.
The potato is a tuber of Solanum tuberosum; it comes in many colors (brown, purple, red, white, etc.) and can be easily cooked by frying in oil, baking, or boiling. For long-term storage or shipment, they can be frozen in strips (to make "French Fries" or "chips") or turned to powder.
International Year of the Potato
The United Nations declared 2008 the International Year of the Potato. It hopes that greater awareness of the merits of potatoes will contribute to the achievement of its Millennium Development Goals, by helping to alleviate poverty, improve food security and promote economic development.
The potato was discovered and cultivated in the Andes 3000+ years ago, and was a major food source for the Incas, who gave it to the Spanish around 1520. They brought to Europe one main variety, the white potato. It soon became the major food crop for peasants in northern Europe. A plot of an acre or less could feed an entire peasant family for a year. Ireland became overdependent on the potato, and when a potato blight in 1845-46 destroyed most of the crop, the result was the Irish Potato Famine. The famine caused a million deaths, vast social disruption and massive emigration.
Farmers and agronomists have developed many new varieties and sub-varieties to fit different soils and climates. Harvest is usually midsummer to late fall. Most farmers plant in early spring, using well-drained, slightly acid soil; they avoid wet, soggy soils.
The sweet potato is an entirely unrelated plant.
Production and consumption
Many countries produce potatoes; almost all is for local consumption as the international market is small.
The ten leaders in production in 2007, in million metric tons were:
- 72 China
- 36 Russia
- 26 India
- 19 Ukraine
- 18 USA
- 12 Germany
- 11 Poland
- 8.5 Belarus
- 7.2 Netherlands
- 6.3 France
At first people were highly suspicious, but as economist Adam Smith concluded in 1776:
- "The very general use which is made of potatoes in [Britain] as food for man is a convincing proof that the prejudices of a nation, with regard to diet, however deeply rooted, are by no means unconquerable."
Served as "French fries", often alongside burgers and colas, potatoes are now an icon of globalization.
Belorussians lead the world with 345 kilos consumed per person per year—an amazing two pounds a day per man, woman and child.
Potatoes yield abundantly with little effort, and adapt readily to diverse climates so long as the climate is cool and moist enough for the plants to gather sufficient water from the soil to form the starchy tubers. Potatoes do not keep very well in storage and are vulnerable to molds that feed on the stored tubers, quickly turning them rotten. By contrast grain can be stored for several years without much risk of rotting.
Potatoes were first domesticated in Peru between 3000 BC and 2000 BC. In the altiplano, potatoes provided the principal energy source for the Inca Empire, its predecessors and its Spanish successor. In Peru above 10,000 feet altitude, tubers exposed to the cold night air turned into chuño; when kept in permanently-frozen underground storehouses, chuño can be stored for years with no loss of nutritional value. The Spanish fed chuño to the silver miners who produced vast wealth in the 16th century for the Spanish government.
Peru is home to up to 3,500 different varieties of edible tubers, according to the International Potato Center, whose headquarters are near Lima. The United Nations has designated 2008 as the "International Year of the Potato" and Peru hopes to use this to draw attention to itself and its crop. Alan García, the president, has ordered that a government-sponsored program of free breakfasts for poor families should serve bread made from a mixture of potato flour with wheat, which is more expensive and has to be imported. He also wants government food services to start serving chuño, a naturally freeze-dried potato that is traditionally eaten by Andean Indians. Boiled chuño and cheese are said to have replaced sandwiches at cabinet meetings. Peru grows 25 varieties commercially, but exports little. Peruvian yellow potatoes are prized by gourmets for mashing; tubular ollucos are firm and waxy.
The potato diffused widely after 1600, becoming a major food resource in Europe and East Asia. Following its introduction into China toward the end of the Ming dynasty, the potato immediately became a delicacy of the imperial family. After the middle period of the Qianlong reign (1735–96), population increases and a subsequent need to increase grain yields coupled with greater peasant geographic mobility, led to the rapid spread of potato cultivation throughout China, and it was acclimated to local natural conditions.
Boomgaard (2003) looks at the adoption of various root and tuber crops in Indonesia throughout the colonial period and examines the chronology and reasons for progressive adoption of foreign crops - sweet potato, Irish potato, bengkuang (yam beans), and cassava.
Sailors returning from Peru to Spain with silver presumably brought maize and potatoes for their own food on the trip. Historians speculate that leftover tubers (and maize) was carried ashore and planted. Basque fishermen from Spain used potatoes as ships' stores for their voyages across Atlantic in the 16th century, and introduced the tuber to western Ireland, where they landed to dry their cod.
In 1588 botanist Carolus Clusius made a painting of what he called "Papas Peruanorum" from a specimen in Belgium; in 1601 he reported that potatoes were in common use in northern Italy for animal fodder and for human consumption.
The Spanish had an empire across Europe, and brought potatoes for their armies. Peasants along the way adopted the crop, which was less often pillaged by marauding armies than above-ground stores of grain. Across most of northern Europe, where open fields prevailed, potatoes were strictly confined to small garden plots because field agriculture was strictly governed by custom that prescribed seasonal rhythms for plowing, sowing, harvesting and grazing animals on fallow and stubble. This meant that potatoes were barred from large-scale cultivation because the rules allowed only grain to be planted in the open fields. In France and Germany government officials and noble landowners promoted the rapid conversion of fallow land into potato fields after 1750.
In Ireland the expansion of potato cultivation was due entirely to the landless laborers, renting tiny plots from landowners who were interested only in raising cattle or in producing grain for market. A single acre of potatoes and the milk of a single cow was enough to feed a whole Irish family a monotonous but nutritionally adequate diet for a healthy, vigorous (and desperately poor) rural population. Often even poor families grew enough extra potatoes to feed a pig which could be sold for cash.
French physician Antoine Parmentier studied the potato intensely and in Examen chymique des pommes de terres (Paris, 1774) showed their enormous nutritional value. King Louis XVI and his court eagerly promoted the new crop, with Queen Marie Antoinette even wearing a headdress of potato flowers at a fancy dress ball. The annual potato crop of France soared to 21 million hectoliters in 1815 and 117 millions in 1840, allowing a concomitant growth in population while avoiding the Malthusian trap. Although potatoes had become widely familiar in Russia by 1800, they were confined to garden plots until the grain failure in 1838-1839 persuaded peasants and landlords in central and northern Russia to devote their fallow fields to raising potatoes. Potatoes yielded from two to four times more calories per acre than grain did, and eventually came to dominate the food supply in eastern Europe. Boiled or baked potatoes were cheaper than rye bread, just as nutritious, and did not require a gristmill for grinding. On the other hand, cash-oriented landlords realized that grain was much easier to ship, store and sell, so both grain and potatoes coexisted.
Throughout Europe the most important new food in the 19th century was the potato, which had three major advantages over other foods: its lower rate of spoilage, its bulk (which easily satisfied hunger), and its cheapness. The crop slowly spread across Europe, such that, for example, by 1845 it occupied one-third of Irish arable land. Potatoes comprised about 10% of the caloric intake of Europeans. Other foods imported from the New World included cod, sugar, rice, flour, and rum. These also provided an additional 10% of daily calories and proved a crucial factor in biodiversity of crops, thus preventing famines.
In Britain the potato promoted economic development by underpinning the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. As a cheap source of calories and nutrients that was easy for urban workers to cultivate on small backyard plots. Potatoes became popular in the north of England, where coal was readily available, so a potato-driven population boom provided ample workers for the new factories. Marxist Friedrich Engels even declared that the potato was the equal of iron for its "historically revolutionary role.
The Lumper potato, widely cultivated in western and southern Ireland before and during the great famine, was tasteless, wet, and poorly resistant to the potato blight, but yielded large crops and usually provided adequate calories for peasants and laborers. Heavy dependence on this potato led to disaster when the potato blight turned a newly harvested potato into a putrid mush in minutes. The Irish Famine in the western and southern parts of the British-controlled island of Ireland, 1845–49, was a catastrophic failure in the food supply that led to approximately a million deaths from famine and (especially) diseases that attacked weakened bodies, and to massive emigration to Britain, the U.S. and Canada.
The Dutch potato-starch industry grew rapidly in the 19th century, especially under the leadership of entrepreneur Willem Albert Scholten (1819–92).
US and Canada
Potatoes were planted in Idaho as early as 1838; by 1900 the state's production exceeded a million bushels. Prior to 1910, the crops were stored in barns or root cellars, but by the 1920s potato cellars came into use. U.S. potato production has increased steadily; two-thirds of the crop comes from Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Maine, and potato growers have strengthened their position in both domestic and foreign markets.
By the 1960s, the Canadian Potato Research Centre in Fredericton, New Brunswick, was one of the top six potato research institutes in the world. Established in 1912 as a dominion experimental station, the station began in the 1930s to concentrate on breeding new varieties of disease-resistant potatoes. In the 1950s-60s the growth of the french fry industry in New Brunswick led to a focus on developing varieties for the industry. By the 1970s the station's potato research was broader than ever before, but the station and its research programs had changed, as emphasis was placed on serving industry rather than potato farmers in general. Scientists at the station even began describing their work using engineering language rather than scientific prose.
Here is a list of potato dishes:
- French fries (Belgium); called "chips" by Brits
- Mashed potatoes
- Champ (Ireland)
- Potatoes au Gratin (France)
- Gnocchi (Italy)
- Baked Potato
- Boiled Potato
- Potato pancakes (Hungary)
- Potato Chips (American snack food)
- Rösti (Switzerland)
French fries (chips) are often served with Hamburgers.
- Economist. "Llamas and mash," The Economist Feb 28th 2008 online
- Economist. "The potato: Spud we like," (leader) The Economist Feb 28th 2008 online
- Boomgaard, Peter. "In the Shadow of Rice: Roots and Tubers in Indonesian History, 1500-1950." Agricultural History 2003 77(4): 582-610. Issn: 0002-1482 Fulltext: Ebsco
- Langer, William L. "American Foods and Europe's Population Growth 1750-1850," Journal of Social History, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Winter, 1975), pp. 51–66 in JSTOR
- McNeill, William H. "How the Potato Changed the World's History." Social Research 1999 66(1): 67-83. Issn: 0037-783x Fulltext: Ebsco, by a leading historian
- McNeill, William H. "The Introduction of the Potato into Ireland," Journal of Modern History 21 (1948): 218-21. in JSTOR
- Ó Gráda, Cormac. Black '47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy, and Memory. (1999). 272 pp.
- Ó Gráda, Cormac, Richard Paping, and Eric Vanhaute, eds. When the Potato Failed: Causes and Effects of the Last European Subsistence Crisis, 1845-1850. (2007). 342 pp. ISBN 978-2-503-51985-2. 15 essays by scholars looking at Ireland and all of Europe
- Reader, John. Propitious Esculent: The Potato in World History (2008), 315pp the standard scholarly history
- Salaman, Redcliffe. The History and Social Influence of the Potato (1949)
- Zuckerman, Larry. The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World. (1998). 304 pp.
- See International Year of the Potato website
- Office of International Affairs, Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation (1989) online
- See "Potato Late Blight for details.
- see Richard W. Chase, "Potato Variety Inventory" (2008) for a listing
- See Gary A. Secor, "Guidelines for Seed Potato Selection, Handling and Planting" PP-877 1997 and "Potato Production in the Home Garden"
- Office of International Affairs, Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation (1989) online
- William H. McNeill, "How the Potato Changed the World's History." Social Research 1999 66(1): 67-83.
- William L. Langer, "American Foods and Europe's Population Growth 1750-1850," Journal of Social History, 8#2 (1975), pp. 51-66
- John Komlos, "The New World's Contribution to Food Consumption During the Industrial Revolution." Journal of European Economic History 1998 27(1): 67-82. Issn: 0391-5115
- Steven Turner, and Heather Molyneaux, "Agricultural Science, Potato Breeding and the Fredericton Experimental Station, 1912-66." Acadiensis 2004 33(2): 44-67. Issn: 0044-5851