Many researchers believe that the potato’s arrival in northern Europe spelled an end to famine there. (Corn, another American crop, played a similar but smaller role in southern Europe.) More than that, as the historian William H. McNeill has argued, the potato led to empire: “By feeding rapidly growing populations, [it] 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.It is a fascinating story. Go read the whole thing.
Equally important, the European and North American adoption of the potato set the template for modern agriculture—the so-called agro-industrial complex. Not only did the Columbian Exchange carry the potato across the Atlantic, it also brought the world’s first intensive fertilizer: Peruvian guano. And when potatoes fell to the attack of another import, the Colorado potato beetle, panicked farmers turned to the first artificial pesticide: a form of arsenic. Competition to produce ever-more-potent arsenic blends launched the modern pesticide industry. In the 1940s and 1950s, improved crops, high-intensity fertilizers and chemical pesticides created the Green Revolution, the explosion of agricultural productivity that transformed farms from Illinois to Indonesia—and set off a political argument about the food supply that grows more intense by the day.
Wild potatoes are laced with solanine and tomatine, toxic compounds believed to defend the plants against attacks from dangerous organisms like fungi, bacteria and human beings. Cooking often breaks down such chemical defenses, but solanine and tomatine are unaffected by heat. In the mountains, guanaco and vicuña (wild relatives of the llama) lick clay before eating poisonous plants. The toxins stick—more technically, “adsorb”—to the fine clay particles in the animals’ stomachs, passing through the digestive system without affecting it. Mimicking this process, mountain peoples apparently learned to dunk wild potatoes in a “gravy” made of clay and water. Eventually they bred less-toxic potatoes, though some of the old, poisonous varieties remain, favored for their resistance to frost. Clay dust is still sold in Peruvian and Bolivian markets to accompany them.
Continental farmers regarded this alien food with fascinated suspicion; some believed it an aphrodisiac, others a cause of fever or leprosy. The philosopher-critic Denis Diderot took a middle stance in his Encyclopedia (1751-65), Europe’s first general compendium of Enlightenment thought. “No matter how you prepare it, the root is tasteless and starchy,” he wrote. “It cannot be regarded as an enjoyable food, but it provides abundant, reasonably healthy food for men who want nothing but sustenance.” Diderot viewed the potato as “windy.” (It caused gas.) Still, he gave it the thumbs up. “What is windiness,” he asked, “to the strong bodies of peasants and laborers?”
With such halfhearted endorsements, the potato spread slowly. When Prussia was hit by famine in 1744, King Frederick the Great, a potato enthusiast, had to order the peasantry to eat the tubers. In England, 18th-century farmers denounced S. tuberosum as an advance scout for hated Roman Catholicism. “No Potatoes, No Popery!” was an election slogan in 1765. France was especially slow to adopt the spud. Into the fray stepped Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, the potato’s Johnny Appleseed.
Trained as a pharmacist, Parmentier served in the army during the Seven Years’ War and was captured by the Prussians—five times. During his multiple prison stints he ate little but potatoes, a diet that kept him in good health. His surprise at this outcome led Parmentier to become a pioneering nutritional chemist after the war ended, in 1763; he devoted the rest of his life to promulgating S. tuberosum.
Parmentier’s timing was good. After Louis XVI was crowned in 1775, he lifted price controls on grain. Bread prices shot up, sparking what became known as the Flour War: more than 300 civil disturbances in 82 towns. Parmentier tirelessly proclaimed that France would stop fighting over bread if only her citizens would eat potatoes. Meanwhile, he set up one publicity stunt after another: presenting an all-potato dinner to high-society guests (the story goes that Thomas Jefferson, one of the guests, was so delighted he introduced French fries to America); supposedly persuading the king and queen to wear potato blossoms; and planting 40 acres of potatoes at the edge of Paris, knowing that famished commoners would steal them.
In exalting the potato, Parmentier unwittingly changed it. All of Europe’s potatoes descended from a few tubers sent across the ocean by curious Spaniards. When farmers plant pieces of tuber, rather than seeds, the resultant sprouts are clones. By urging potato cultivation on a massive scale, Parmentier was unknowingly promoting the notion of planting huge areas with clones—a true monoculture.
The effects of this transformation were so striking that any general history of Europe without an entry in its index for S. tuberosum should be ignored. Hunger was a familiar presence in 17th- and 18th-century Europe. Cities were provisioned reasonably well in most years, their granaries carefully monitored, but country people teetered on a precipice. France, the historian Fernand Braudel once calculated, had 40 nationwide famines between 1500 and 1800, more than one per decade. This appalling figure is an underestimate, he wrote, “because it omits the hundreds and hundreds of local famines.” France was not exceptional; England had 17 national and big regional famines between 1523 and 1623. The continent simply could not reliably feed itself.
The potato changed all that. Every year, many farmers left fallow as much as half of their grain land, to rest the soil and fight weeds (which were plowed under in summer). Now smallholders could grow potatoes on the fallow land, controlling weeds by hoeing. Because potatoes were so productive, the effective result, in terms of calories, was to double Europe’s food supply.
Thursday, November 3, 2011
The Lowly Potato
Here is a bit from an excellent article in the Smithsonian magazine about the potato: