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1493: The Potato Feeds Europe

July 16, 2012

In 1493: Uncovering The New World Columbus Created, after discussing some of the initial impacts on Asia of the Colombian Exchange, Charles C. Mann turns his attention to the impact on Europe of the humble potato.

As with maize (corn), the domestication and cultivation of the potato was one of the great agricultural accomplishments of pre-industrial human history.  As Mann reports, “Potatoes would not seem obvious candidates for domestication.  Wild tubers are laced with solanine and tomatine toxic compounds thought to defend the plants against attacks from dangerous organisms like fungi, bacteria and human beings.”  In fact, the common potato (S. tuberosum) has such a complicated genetic makeup that modern scientists still can’t say for certain what its origins are.

Andean Indians bred (and breed) hundreds of varieties of potatoes.  The Spanish brought only a few varieties back to Europe, and for over two centuries, the potato spread slowly.  “The first food Europeans grew from tubers, rather than seed, the potato was regarded with fascinated suspicion; some believed it to be an aphrodisiac,others a cause of fever, leprosy and scrofula.   Ultraconservative Russian Orthodox priests denounced it as an incarnation of evil, using as proof the undeniable fact that potatoes are not mentioned in the Bible.”

Only in the mid-17th century—two centuries later—did the potato begin to gain widespread acceptance in Europe, thanks in large part to its primary evangelist of the time, French pharmacist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier.  (One pro-potato event Parmentier organized is said to have inspired Thomas Jefferson, then U.S. Ambassador to France, to introduce a recipe for  “French fries” to his home country.)

Some of the hundreds of potato varieties cultivated in the Andes
credit: sacredearth.com

The historical importance of the potato for Europe was that it ended (for a time) widespread hunger and famine (and the ensuing social strife) for much of Europe.  “Because potatoes were so productive, the effective result was, in terms of calories, to double  Europe’s food supply.”

The potato didn’t just supply calories to Europe’s poor; it ensured health.  Economist Adam Smith noticed this effect among the Irish, who ate more potatoes than any other Europeans.  “The chairmen, porters, and coal-heavers in London, and those unfortunate women who live by prostitution—the strongest men and the most beautiful women perhaps in the British dominions—are said to be, the greater part of them, from the lowest rank of people in Ireland, who are generally fed with this root.”  At the time Smith was writing, 40% of Irish men and women ate no solid food other than potatoes.  They could do that because the potato is a nearly perfect food.

Mann explains Smith’s observation: “Today we know why: the potato can better sustain life than any other food when eaten as the sole item of diet.  it has all essential nutrients except vitamins A and D, which can be supplied by milk; the diet of the Irish poor in Smith’s day consisted largely of potatoes and milk.” (emphasis added)

The lowly potato, according to researchers Mann cites, was one of the main causes for the increase in Europe’s population in the 18th and 19th centuries.

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From → Books, Food, History

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