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How the Lowly Potato Changed the World

By Edited Apr 29, 2016 7 19

Eye See You!

Empires are popularly thought to be built on conquest.  However, the economic juggernaut and political powerhouse that became modern Europe would not have been possible without one of the New World’s humblest of foodstuffs, the lowly potato.

Mount Tater
The Andes Mountain range (running from South America’s southern tip in Tierra del Fuego northward along the Pacific coastline, then northeast to the Caribbean Sea) is the world’s longest.  At 5,500 miles, it formed at about the same

Andes Mountains (map)
time as North America’s Rocky Mountains from tectonic plate collision. 

As with North America’s Rockies, the Andes form a formidable natural barrier separating South America into two distinct geographic and cultural regions.  Those on the Pacific Coast side of the range developed a culture in tune more with the altitudes and climactic conditions there than those on the east, blessed with more open plains and lush tropical forests.

The tallest peak is a volcano, Aconcagua, and it is slightly over 23,000 feet high.  The climactic variations along the Andes chain are dramatic, and unlike most places in the world, are vertically defined into zones.  The lowest levels (up to about 3,000 feet) contain pockets of tropical forests as well as scorching deserts.  The temperate zone lies between 3,000 and 6,500 feet.  Beyond that is a zone extending to about 10,000 feet where the average temperature ranges between 50° and 65° Fahrenheit.  It is in these temperate and milder zones the agricultural doings of the Mayans and Incas developed.  The land of the Andes is not terribly arable, and much must be done to find workable soil in a nearly vertical environment.  Stepped and terraced farming developed early as did farming in small raised beds. 

The true bounty of the New World was not in its mineral deposits, however.  One can safely argue the real discovery in the Americas was the foodstuffs that, through careful cultivation by Native Americans over millennia, allowed the rest of the world to live.

“I’m Hungry!”
Famines were widespread in Europe at the time of the Spanish exploration of the South American continent and Mexico. Crops were poor, the varieties of cereals grown were weakened, and the “Little Ice Age” (a period lasting roughly 500 years, ending in the early 19th century) was in full force, shortening growing seasons.  The peasantry was starving, and lived precariously.  Famines in France, Britain, Germany, and elsewhere were all duly noted in history. England had 17 nationwide famines between 1523 and 1623.  France had 40 such catastrophic famines from 1500 to 1800.  These numbers, however, ignore the hundreds of local

Conquistador meets South American native (1532)
famines that happened during the same time.

The “discovery” of the Americas by Europeans brought a smörgåsbord of unknown and nutritious foods to the European table.  The real burst in humanity’s numbers occurred in the wake of this agricultural bounty.  Many of these new plants were considered exotic.  Many were also considered dangerous (the tomato, as a member of the nightshade family, was thought to be fatally poisonous).  The biodiversity the American plants brought to Europe would be both a blessing and a curse.

When the first conquistadors arrived they found the Natives eating an amorphous tuber as a mainstay of their diet.  This little brown lump was a staple food, first domesticated about 8,000 years ago.  It was later called the “potato”.  There wasn’t just one kind of potato, however; the Incas and Mayans grew different varieties of potatoes at different altitudes to maximize their output, to offer dietary variety, and to insure a continual food supply.  As a result, by the time of the Spanish exploration, these Natives had recognized and cultivated many different types of potatoes, each with different benefits. [In Peru, the International Potato Center has preserved almost 5,000 of these heirloom potatoes – the diversity in color, texture, taste, and character is amazing.].

Cornucopia o' spuds (detail)

Eating Dirt
The potato that the Natives foraged (unlike its near-relative the tomato) was poisonous.  Wild potatoes contain many toxins as defenses against insects, fungal infection, and as a discouragement to eating.  It is part of the natural selection process.  South American natives, however, through extremely careful observation (and making a tremendous, albeit intuitive, leap of faith) learned how to safely eat the poisonous potato by watching animals.

The main toxins in potatoes are solanine and tomatine.  Although most organic poisons break down when heated, these two do not, and they retain their lethal punch even after cooking.  The earliest potatoes could kill.  The Natives, however, noticed that the wild guanacos and vicuñas (relatives of the llama) ate these tubers without harm. In an amazing moment of interspecies information exchange, the Natives noticed that before the vicuñas ate the poisonous wild potatoes, they first licked up a glob of clay onto their tongues.  Although the Natives did not understand why it worked, the clay did the trick – the eating of edible clay along with these poisonous potatoes meant a whole new vista of food for the aboriginals.

The potato toxins adhere to the clay.  As the clay is indigestible, the toxins it carries are safely evacuated from the body.  The Mayans and Incas refined this technique for eating the otherwise fatal food.  They used a specific type of finely ground clay, mixed with water, and made into a slurry.  The potatoes were then dipped into this clay gravy and eaten.  Although many less-toxic varieties of potato were developed over centuries, the poisonous ones fared better in the frostier elevations.  Thus, today in Peru and Chile one can still buy older variety poisonous potatoes along with dry edible clay.

Chuño (food of the Incas)

The products made from the potato were myriad, but one of its most clever and important uses was as a preserved food.  The Andes altitudes ranged from warm to hot in the day time and bitterly, if not always freezing, cold at night.  The early Native farmers (probably by accident) learned to leave potatoes out overnight to freeze.  They thawed during the day, and then were left to freeze again overnight.  This process went on for five days until what was left was a shriveled lump of potato starch.  The farmers squeezed what little water remained out if it – the resultant clod weighed almost nothing and had an indefinite shelf life.  This potato product, chuño, dates to antiquity, and it is arguably the very first portable, preserved food.  The Incas fed their armies on this lightweight starch – when added to stew and broths, chuño has a similar texture and taste to the Italian gnocchi (potato dumplings made from potato flour).

Potatoes? Never!
The Spaniards imported the plant as a curiosity. Much like the tomato the potato was grown as an ornamental.  Its bluish-white to purplish blooms were considered exotic, and as late as the French Revolution, the aristocracy were wearing adornments of potato blossoms.  However, people would not recognize the food value of the potato, and they were still afraid of it.

Food intake was sketchy during the years before potatoes were introduced in Europe.  The average peasant’s food intake was less than that of the average African and Amazonian hunter-gatherer of the same period!  The living standard was about what it is today in Cameroon or Bangladesh

When famine struck Prussia in 1744, King Frederick the Great (an early enthusiast of the potato) had to issue a direct order to his people to eat potatoes.  Similarly, slow adaptation caused the spread of potatoes to merely creep along in Europe.  Some people considered it an aphrodisiac; others thought it was poisonous or could cause leprosy.  One critic said it was bland and made the consumer “windy” (flatulent).  But, he grudgingly conceded, it was food: “What is windiness to the strong bodies of peasants and laborers?”

Corn (with almost no popular resistance) had been successfully introduced into Europe from the New World.  In the southern countries it saved lives by relieving famine conditions as a staple crop.  Central and Northern Europe had no such crop.  At the time of the French Revolution (and the bread riots from famine that led to the Reign of Terror) one French man tried his best to ease his country’s suffering by convincing the populace to eat potatoes.

Antoine-Augustin Parmentier realized the potato’s potential; he had been imprisoned several times, and thrived there on a steady diet of potatoes. He staged many public lectures and demonstrations extolling the virtues of potatoes.   He even made an elegant meal consisting of nothing but potatoes in varying forms; Thomas Jefferson attended one such dinner, and came away with an appreciation for a thinly sliced, deep-fried item later named “French fries”.

Americans have backwards ways of naming things.  The wild turkey was first domesticated in Mexico centuries ago.  The conquering Spaniards exported the bird to Europe.  When it was introduced to North America, the original receivers thought it was some exotic fowl from Asia Minor.  They called it the “turkey” after the country they thought it was native to, Turkey

In similar fashion, the potato from South America made its way to continental Europe, then on to Ireland.  And when the potato was first brought to the North American continent the first seed tubers were from Ireland.  Hence, the term “Irish” potato came to be applied to a South American plant. 

“¡Mi guano es mi guano!”
Brazil once had a strangle hold on the world’s rubber market.  One British man in the 19th century, however, stole rubber tree plants and seeds from

Chincha Islands, Peru (guano mining, ca 19th century)
South America, and his biopiracy allowed the British Empire to grow exponentially. 

In the same way, Peru “owned” guano.  About 13 miles off the southern coast of Peru (almost due west of the coastal town of Pisco) are three granite islands called the Chincha Islands.  Upon these islands for millennia sea birds have congregated and nested.  Over the centuries their guano has covered the islands to a depth of over 150 feet (anyone having been near this little island group claims the stench is horrific). 

Potatoes require nitrogen, especially in poorer soils.  Guano is rich in nitrogen.  Thus, once the potato finally caught on globally, the Peruvians were literally sitting on mountains of brown gold.  Mining operations (under appalling conditions using Chinese slave labor) on the islands led to Peru’s monopoly of the world guano market.  At the time there was no substitute available.  The Peruvian Government understandably jealously guarded its manure-covered islands. 

The global market for potato fertilizer, relying as it did on Peru, was not happy with the monopoly.  Pricing and supply was an issue.  In Britain, in 1854, complaints were published: “We do not get anything like the quantity we require…we want a great deal more…but…we want it at a lower price.”

Thus the Guano War began.  The United States, in a fit of pique, decided that since the Peruvians would not freely share the Chincha Islands, there was rumbling of going to war and taking them by force!  A less rash plan was put into effect, however.  In 1854, the US Congress enacted a law, called the Guano Islands Act, that authorized any Americans to seize for the US any guano supply they discovered.  Over the next 50 years, US merchants claimed 94 islands, cays, coral heads, and atolls with any trace of guano on it for the US. 

In 40 years Peru had mined and shipped over 13 million tons of guano. The chemical fertilizer industry developed as a reaction to Peru’s monopoly on guano, and its advent destroyed the Peruvian guano market.

No Irish!”
Parmentier (the Frenchman who spent the rest of his life developing and refining potatoes) probably gave rise to monoculture.  Potatoes aren’t grown from germinated seeds like most plants.  Rather, they are propagated by cuttings.  A hunk of potato containing at least one budding “eye” is planted, and a new plant grows from that.  Each new potato grown this way is a clone of the parent.  Thus, year after year the same genetic stock was propagated. Biodiversity was set aside.  This monoculture (without rotating the seed stocks or switching off to different varieties) would change world history and spell ruin for one country in particular.

Ireland’s climate and land sharing was ideal for potato farming.   It did not suffer if stalks broke, and it could take weather extremes fairly well (being underground).  The yields were good, and by the late 18th century the potato was the sole source of solid food for about 40% of the Irish population.

However, the potato’s place of origin in the Andes also brought about a history-changing event.  Potatoes, as any plants, have their natural invaders: fungi, insects, bacteria.  A particular type of water mold, however, invaded the European stock of potatoes.  The potato, through centuries of cultivation and different growing conditions, was no longer poisonous enough to resist a mold from its native land, Peru.  This rot came along with the guano from the Chincha Islands, and it was devastating.  It hit first in Antwerp in 1845, and then had spread to Paris by August 1845.  It was first reported in Ireland on September 13, 1845.

That first year of blight destroyed over ¾-million acres of an estimated 2.1 million acres of potatoes in Ireland in a two-month period (over 35% of the crop).  The next year was worse, and the year after still worse.  The plague did not abate until about 1852.  Meanwhile, Ireland suffered over a million deaths during that time.  As a percentage of its population, that number would be the equivalent of over 40 million Americans today.  This was perhaps one of the deadliest famines in history. 

The net result was that people fled Ireland.  Over 2 million of them sought other parts of the globe to survive in.  Of that 2 million, 75% came to the United States, and created an undesired underclass of unwelcome Irish immigrants.  Over the decades the anti-Irish sentiments dissipated, but as a group they were just as persecuted as any other Eastern European immigrants were.  Today, Ireland holds the dubious distinction as the only country in the world whose population is less than it was in 1850; it has never recovered fully from the Great Potato Famine.

Mr. Potato Head
The sweet potato belongs to the morning-glory family and has not been nearly as influential as the ubiquitous South American transplant.  The language used in pop culture reflects a sedentary belief about the spud.  The term “couch potato” is used to describe an inert lump of a human waste that does nothing but lie around on a sofa and watch television all day.  Potatoes are used to describe the unsophisticated: “He’s a meat-and-potatoes man.”

When the toy, Mr. Potato Head, was developed, it was a reaction to a Depression-era kid wanting something inexpensive to play with.  The common potato could be disposable, sticking holes in it to put on silly faces and hats.  And, perhaps because of Mr. Potato Head, the mental pictures conjured to describe an unintelligent person – a “Spud Head” or “spud” – are also disparaging to potatoes.


Without this lowly little brown lump, however, humanity would not have been able to grow from less than a billion people globally in 1700 to the nearly seven billion that occupy the planet today. It is a true native of the New World, and the thing which allowed the Old World to survive and thrive.




Jan 18, 2012 6:45am
Wow... just wow. I never thought I could enjoy reading about potatoes so much!
Jan 18, 2012 6:55pm
Ain't it though? I was actually standing at my kitchen table holding one and looking at it when I thought about writing this. Thanks for reading.
Jan 22, 2012 9:00pm
Feb 8, 2012 8:10pm
I'll never take a potato for granted again, not with their history. Good and interesting read!
Feb 8, 2012 11:52pm
Thanks -- this is the kind of thing that entertains me beyond reason (both writing it and reading it).
Feb 11, 2012 5:32am
One of the "Ten Commandments for the Irish" is to "halve each potato with love"; love for God, family, Motherland and the tater itself ;-)
Feb 12, 2012 1:52am
It stills amazes me endlessly how much of an impact the spud had on Eire. Millions of deaths and immigrants.

And I am a huge fan of potaotes as a food -- I have gorwn thme several itmes, and I eat them frequently, different ones where I can get them and there's probalby a spud out there for any palate.

Thanks for reading.
Feb 11, 2012 2:23pm
Absolutely entertaining and informative. Potatoes are one of my favorite foods. So many uses.
Feb 12, 2012 1:57am
Thanks -- 'maters are just as fascinating, but didn't have the historic impact that taters did. (Although when the New Englanders began colonizing, for quite awhile there it looked as if the native cranberry was going to be the preferred tangy/tart fruit for sauces, etc. Picture a pizza with an underpinning of cranberry sausce!! Good thing someone finally figured out maters were safe to eat, huh?)
Feb 13, 2012 9:50pm
Fascinating article! Congratulations on the feature, too.
Feb 14, 2012 12:22am
Thanks for loving the spuds!
Feb 14, 2012 1:50pm
Potato is one of my favorite comfort food, I enjoy reading your article. Thanks for sharing!
Feb 15, 2012 12:52am
Thanks for reading.
Feb 16, 2012 7:52pm
I can't believe that you completely ignored the documentary "Close Encounters" where a pile of mashed potatoes led mankind to its first encounter with an alien species.
Mar 2, 2012 8:20pm
Only got to see this now. I'm a fan of potatoes (in any form of cooking) and I must say they do save the world! :)
Mar 3, 2012 12:40am
I'm a huge fan of the ugly little brown lump myself. Thanks for reading.
Mar 3, 2012 1:28am
No problem. :)
Oct 15, 2013 4:17am
We always call them the humble pototo or spud. Its funny seeing this as I have just written an article on growing them and sweet potatoes. But sitting in computer waiting for mine to shoot so have good photos of them. One day.. great article and feature
Oct 15, 2013 5:26am
I truly loves me some 'taters. And I gained a real appreciation for just how important our foods are in human history (I also wrote a piece about sprouted-grain bread that was equally eye-opening). Thanks for reading.
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  1. "Potato." American Peoples Encyclopedia. 1963.
  2. Charles C. Mann "The Eyes Have It." Smithsonian. 42:7 1/11/2011.
  3. "Andes Mountains." American Peoples Encyclopedia. 1963.
  4. "Chuño." en.wikipedia.org. 13/01/2012 <Web >

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