Potatoes, Part 1: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
By Dani Lind | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
The potato is a very complicated vegetable. It may seem like the most humble and bland of vegetables, but let me tell you, it is anything but. No other vegetable has had anywhere near the impact on world history, the global environment and economics that the potato has. It’s not just a vegetable—it’s a mover and a shaker, an Empire-maker, a commodity, and a killer. The history of the potato presents conflicting sides to a long story, one of sustainability and biodiversity in its ancient home in the Andes; of nourishment, hope and victory in Europe and North America in the age of Empire; and of famine, revolution and the rise of the agro-industrial complex. These contrasting good and bad sides of the storied spud throughout history continue to play out around the world today, and the jury is still out: is the potato a hero, a villain, or both?
The Good: Ancient History to 1845
Most folks know that potatoes were originally cultivated by the Inca of the Andes Mountains in what is now Peru. What most people don’t know is that the Inca, and all the ancient peoples who preceded them in their high altitude empire, had relied on potatoes as their main source of nourishment for many thousands of years. The Inca didn’t just grow a wide variety of potatoes; they grew thousands of different “landraces” of potatoes throughout their empire. (A landrace is similar to an heirloom, but more specifically, it is a cultivar that has been developed in a particular place through traditional farming practices for many years.) Each community had hundreds of these unique varieties, and farmers would plant dozens of different landraces of potatoes in each field, using diversity as insurance against adverse environmental conditions.
When the Spanish conquistadores came to the Andes, they saw how important the potato was to the Inca and brought some specimens back with them to Europe. The potato’s vitamin C content, storage ability and ease of cooking made them standard scurvy-fighting sailor rations on ships traveling between the New and Old Worlds.
Given their worldwide popularity today, it’s surprising how unwelcome potatoes were outside of South America. Europeans and colonial North Americans were very suspicious of this member of the poisonous nightshade family. After all, they were ugly and bland, the leaves were toxic, they supposedly caused leprosy and maybe syphilis (they don’t, of course), and to top it off, they were never mentioned in the Bible. The French actually made it illegal to eat them. Throughout Europe, potatoes were relegated to animal fodder into the 18th century.
The first Old World champion of the potato was King Frederick the Great of Prussia, who saw the potato’s potential and ordered all of his people to grow them widely with his 1756 Kartoffelbefehl, or “Potato Edict.” Smart move. His people found that potatoes were nutritious as well as productive, providing more than three times the calories per acre than grain, and they were easy to grow in both small spaces and large fields of fallow land between grain rotations. They were easy to harvest and cook, and they stored well. Ever a military strategist, Frederick (who is still nicknamed the “Potato King”) saw that by growing underground, potatoes would be impervious to an invading army’s practice of burning fields behind them as they retreated. Under Frederick’s rule, the Prussian army and peasantry prospered, won a bunch of wars and greatly expanded their empire. One could say it was all because of potatoes.
King Frederick wasn’t the only authority figure to tell his subjects to eat this starchy vegetable. The Royal Society of England, Louis the XVI and Marie Antoinette of France, Catherine the Great of Russia, and Thomas Jefferson all heartily encouraged the heavy cultivation and consumption of potatoes. Still, these leaders’ accolades were mostly ignored by the peasantry until famines caused by widespread grain crop failures convinced the people to give the potato a try. And once they did, they were convinced.
Pretty soon, human population rates exploded. By the late 18th century, the daily caloric intake of the average European peasant had doubled from when they subsisted on iffy supplies of grain and starvation was a real and constant threat. The potato’s high nutritional content made people stronger and healthier, less susceptible to disease and much more susceptible to having lots of healthy babies. By 1840, Ireland’s population had doubled in just 60 years, pretty much entirely thanks to the potato.
Is it a coincidence that the rise of the Prussian Empire, the French Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution in England and America all came in the wake of people starting to eat potatoes? Who knows? But they seem pretty connected to me.
The Bad and the Ugly (and maybe some good): 1845 to Present
History has proven time and time again that people can be incredibly dumb and short-sighted when it comes to environmental stewardship. Unfortunately, neither Europeans nor Americans learned the Inca’s lesson about the importance of biodiversity and long-term sustainability in agriculture. Instead of growing thousands or even dozens of varieties of potatoes, they grew (and continue to grow) only a few, and those few in giant monocrop systems, often without crop rotation or sustainable soil maintenance.
I am not exaggerating when I say that these few facts are what started the modern-day agro-industrial complex that not only feeds the world but will probably one day destroy it.
Let’s take these incredibly non-sustainable practices (which are still used worldwide to this day) one by one:
Lack of biodiversity: Growing only a few varieties of potatoes provided a perfect opportunity for disease to run rampant. Enter the potato blight of 1845, which devastated potato crops across Northern Europe for many consecutive years. Ireland, which mostly grew only one very susceptible variety—the Irish Lumper—and whose people out of all Europeans relied the most heavily on it for their nourishment, was hit the hardest, with more than one million deaths and many more emigrations. The potato’s susceptibility to blight is what started the fungicide industry, when it was discovered in 1882 that spraying a mixture of copper sulfate and quicklime could weaken late blight. Currently, blight resistance is the number one focus in the genetic modification of the potato.
Large scale mono-cropping: In the 1860s, Colorado potato beetles migrated from Mexico to the United States on pack animals, where they encountered unprecedentedly large fields of its most ideal food. The resulting potato beetle population explosion devastated potato crops across the United States. One American farmer accidentally sprayed a bunch of green paint on some of his potato plants and noticed that the potato beetles then left those plants alone. Word spread, and it was discovered that the green paint’s pigment was composed of arsenic and copper, and the modern day insecticide industry began.
Inadequate soil fertility and failure to rotate crops: Generations of poor soil management left the European potato extremely susceptible to nutrient deficiency at the same time that scientists discovered the connection between nitrogen and productivity. All of a sudden there was more demand for nitrogen-rich fertilizer than what was available locally, and from 1840 to 1870, Europe and America imported 12 million tons of guano, or sea bird excrement, from islands off the coast of Peru, and the first large-scale international fertilizer industry began.
Today conventional potatoes are one of the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen,” or top 12 fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide residues, according to data gleaned from the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program. This year’s findings found that the average potato had more pesticides by weight than any other produce. The American potato can be subjected to 35 different insecticides, fungicides and herbicides, many of which are known carcinogens, hormone disruptors and neurotoxins.
The main reason why so many chemicals are used on them is not because of their susceptibility to blight and bugs; it’s because of how good potatoes are and how incredibly important they’ve become worldwide. Grown in more than 130 countries, the potato is now the number three crop in the world grown for human consumption, behind only wheat and rice, and might hold the most promise for feeding developing nations into the future.
To me, the obvious answer to the proliferation of toxic chemicals in potato production, inarguably the ugliest side of the potato, is small-scale, biodiverse, organic production—which deserves an article of its own. But can organic production meet the growing worldwide demand for cheap potatoes? I honestly don’t know.
Let’s ask some local potato farmers and find out in “Potatoes, Part Two: The Future.”
Potato recipes from part 1:
The key to this take on a classic dish is cooking the leeks at a low temperature until they are meltingly tender.
This unique Portuguese soup is spiced up with chorizo and a drizzle of spicy oil.
And we can't forget our newest recipes from Potatoes, Part 2:
Find all our recipes that include potatoes, as well as articles that mention potatoes, in Eat Seasonal: Potatoes.
“2015 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.” Environmental Working Group. 2015.
Chapman, Jeff. “The Impact of the Potato.” History Magazine. Vol. 1; Aug. 2000.
International Potato Center. 2015.
Mann, Charles C. “How the Potato Changed the World.” Smithsonian Magazine. Nov. 2011.
United States Potato Board. 2015.