Baked, roasted, cooked, or raw, one can eat potatoes in every way possible. Potato today is a staple diet and the main dietary source for millions of people. Weighed barely a pound and cost less than a dollar, potato is readily available in the market making it the cheapest food around the world. But what if we were to tell you that without potatoes the modern civilization might not exist at all? Well, as a matter of fact, potatoes fueled the industrial revolution, World war 2, the agro-industrial complex, and empires dominion over the world.
The purple star potato plant was the favorite of Marie Antoinette who would put them in her hairs. While Louis XVI, her husband, would style it in his buttonhole. Before potato became a staple tuber, it was royalty for the French.
French supremacy to global ecological convulsion, the history of potato isn’t just a story of diet but revolutions and battles of dominion.
Potatoes were first cultivated in ancient Peruvian and western Bolivia around 8000 and 5000 BC. For the pastoral tribe in the Cusco area called ‘Incan’ potato served as a major crop in their agricultural practices. They discovered that by dehydrating and mashing the potatoes into something called Chunu, they can store them for almost 10 years. The potato became a kind of food insurance for them. It was the potato production that gave rise to the urbane civilization of the great Incan empire.
It wasn’t until the mid-sixteenth century, that potato traveled the New World. In 1532, through the Spanish sailors, potatoes came to Europe. The sailors recognizing the importance of potato in Incan brought it to Europe, however, a mere tasteless tuber didn’t fascinate the sophisticated people of the west. For them, the potato was just a decorative home item. But there lay many who took potato as witch’s plant due to its resemblance to the nightshade family Belladonna. This suspicion for potatoes continued for 200 years especially in Spain, Italy, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Austria, France, Germany, Ireland, and Portugal. It was just royalty.
Soon the sailors explored, that potatoes remain fresh for a long time and are incredibly useful in long journeys and began using them as basic rations. By the early 16th century, France and Prussia recognized how easy it is to cultivate potatoes and feed the growing population. Thus began the journey of potato popularity. Researchers believe that the tuber’s arrival in northern Europe marked an end to Famine there.
Making the huge population eat the suspicious tuber wasn’t an easy task but Frederick the Great knew his way out. In order to increase potato popularity among the public, he established royal potato farms and placed heavy guards around them. Naturally, the curious people thought that anything worth guarding is indeed a valuable item and so began the massive production and consumption of potatoes.
European peasants no longer found themselves at the mercy of regular crops famine. It helped European nations to feed growing populations from 1750 to 1920.
To put it simply, potatoes ignited the rise of the west.
In the 1620s, when potatoes arrived in North America, they slowly spread through their colonies. Though not many people were interested in the newly introduced crops. Thanks to Thomas Jefferson for introducing the plant at the White House dinner, potato gained its popularity. The high availability made it famous among Irish migrants and their population grew rapidly.
But this high dependence on potatoes was interrupted in 1845 when a huge potato famine left millions of people to starve to death. Known as the Irish potato famine, it was one of the deadliest famines in the world’s history. Soon potato recovered and allowed even the poorest farmers to produce it without fuss.
By 1850, the European working class continued to grow due to potato production. This large population was more than capable of manning the large industries that led to the Industrial revolution. Similarly, the European and American potato production grew the modern agriculture, an agro-industrial complex. It also introduced the world’s first intensive fertilizer called Peruvian guano, giving rise to the modern pesticide industry. These high-intensity fertilizers and chemical pesticides even created the Green Revolution!
So, it’s clearly impossible to imagine a modern world without potatoes!
The potato history is incomplete without the heroic statue of Sir Francis Drake in Offenburg. Erected by Andreas Friederich in 1853, the statue in one hand holds his sword while in the other- a potato. Below is proclaimed “disseminator of the potato in Europe in the Year of Our Lord 1586. The blessings of Millions of people who cultivate the earth bless his immortal memory. This immortal gift of god helped the poor against the misery.”
In 1939, when World War 2 broke out farmers were asked to increase potato production. As the war continued the number of potatoes produced also increased. The high nutritious crop served as a major diet for the exhausted soldiers marking potatoes yet another milestone!
Today potato is one among the five major food crops of the world. It is the second most consumed food in the United States. More than a billion people worldwide eat potatoes, and global total crop production exceeds 300 million metric tons. Came in all shapes and sizes, there are around 4,000 varieties of native potatoes. Astonishingly, one hectare of potato can yield two to four times the food quantity of grain crops.