Book Review “Potato: a history of the propitious esculent” John Reader, Yale University Press 2008

9780300141092I came upon this book by chance. The Economist said “The spud now has the biography it deserves.” I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and appreciated the way John Reader explores the whole picture – history, farming, politics, science, nutrition, greed, deceit, compassion, generosity, climate change, global food supplies, population growth, land ownership, colonialism and hopes for the future. His style is clear and engaging. Unfortunately the book is out of print (it deserves a reprint!), so try your library or look for a used copy.

This review is long. I used the “Read More” button for the first time. There are also more photos in the second part. While writing this I remembered that Carol Deppe has good things to say about potatoes. Read a post I wrote about her perspective.

This book divides into three parts: the first tells of the potato’s origins in South America; the second the impact of importing the potato to Europe, and the third, how the potato spread throughout the world, finishing with a chapter on China, currently the world’s largest producer and largest consumer of potatoes. Measured in tons per country, not girth. NASA plans to supply astronauts one day, on the three-year trip to Mars with various “home-grown” crops. Potatoes will be the star of the garden, using the astronaut-exhaled carbon dioxide to grow, and providing a fresh supply of oxygen as well as all-they-care-to-eat potatoes.

Back in the Andes, where potato ancestors grow wild, at least 400 varieties are cultivated. They divide into three distinct groups, for growing at different altitudes: 3000-3500 metres, 3500-4000 metres and above 4000 metres. The International Potato Center (CIP), which has headquarters in Lima, is an internationally-funded scientific research organization aiming to increase food security and reduce poverty in the developing world. Their Peruvian station preserves potato genetics.

Chitting seed potatoes ready for planting. Credit Kati Folger
Chitting seed potatoes ready for planting.
Credit Kati Folger

Although potatoes tend to be denigrated as “pure starch’ and “empty calories” in developed country, these opinions are far from the scientific fact. The ratio of carbohydrate to protein in potatoes ensures that anyone eating enough potatoes to fulfil their energy needs will automatically get enough protein too. In addition there are significant amounts of various minerals and vitamins. For example, 100 gm of potato provides half the daily requirement of vitamin C. Potato protein is of high biological value (easily absorbed and retained), second only to that in eggs. The starch provides a steady stream of energy, healthier than the rush from sugars and fats. And compared to many food crops, the percentage of the total biomass that can be eaten is very high, at around 75%. Compare with grains at 33% of the mature plant total. An efficient use of land, water and labor. If needed, people can maintain an active working life for months, eating 2-3 kilos of potatoes a day, with a little fat, and nothing else.

Potatoes have been bred to adapt to many different climates. Today, potatoes are grown in at least 149 countries, from latitude 65°N to 50°S, and from sea level to higher than 4000 metres. Only wheat, maize and rice are globally more important food crops. No, not soy.

Potatoes have changed the course of history and evidence of potatoes has changed the interpretation of history. Around 10,000 years ago, in many parts of the world, agriculture began, perhaps following a period of global warming, glacial melting and sea level rise, itself followed by ten centuries of dry, even arid conditions. We don’t know exactly. We do know that the rise of agriculture went along with development of civilizations fuelled by development and growth of a staple food. Potatoes were that food for Andean civilizations. Contrary to the long-held belief that the Clovis culture of 11,200 years ago was the oldest in the Americas (people having migrated across the Bering land bridge from Asia), the Monte Verde site in Chile has been dated at about 12,500 years old. The artifacts include none of the Clovis spear points, but mastodon bones with cut marks, clay-lined hearths, remains of food plants including potatoes. This site is older than any site in North America, suggesting these people did not reach the Americas by crossing the Bering bridge, and rapidly moving a long way south. The boggy conditions at Monte Verde preserved soft organic matter, not merely bones and stones. Assumptions that the residents were nomadic hunters were disproven. How often have early archeological digs suggested a “Man the Hunter” life, because evidence of agriculture has rotted away?

Newly emerging potato plant in the spring Credit Kathryn Simmons
Newly emerging potato plant in the spring
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Tiwanaku, the first state to be based on raising potatoes, lies in present day Bolivia. The site is 3845 metres above sea level. In its heyday, between 800 AD and 1200 AD, it was a powerful empire. Llama herds provided meat, transportation and fuel. The author is careful to avoid the Man the Hunter mindset. Plant foods enabled the people to settle and thrive. Potatoes, quinoa and kañihua were important crops. Agriculture was undertaken judiciously, using ridged fields to keep the land frost-free. (The ditches held water which moderated the soil temperature on cold nights by as much as 6-9 Celsius degrees.)

It isn’t known exactly when potatoes were first introduced to Europe, perhaps 1588 in Belgium, perhaps 1586 in England, certainly by the early 1600s. A poster from 1664 recommended planting potatoes to feed the family, or to sell. However, not all market farmers jumped at the chance. Some thought radishes or turnips a more worthwhile crop. It took a couple of centuries before the potato became Europe’s most widely consumed, cheap, nutritious food. This wasn’t simple prejudice about new foods – the first potatoes to reach Europe were not adapted to the growing conditions, where the day length varies much more than in the equatorial Andes. The plants produced lots of stems and leaves all summer, then struggled to grow tubers in the falling temperatures of late September. Word spread of disappointing yields. But the Spaniards in the Canary Islands had been developing adapted varieties, and this lead to better results.

A ladybug on a potato leaf, looking for pests to eat
A ladybug on a potato leaf, looking for pests to eat. Credit Kathryn Simmons

Potatoes have a checkered history in Europe. Undoubtedly, they improved the standard of living and of health of the peasants. Potatoes grow where grains do not, potatoes grow at higher altitudes, potatoes are more tolerant of variable rainfall. Better fed villagers lived longer, fought off more diseases and produced more children. The fortunes of whole regions improved once they had potatoes. Later this led to empire-building, wars and emigration.

Potatoes arrived just as wheat became unaffordable for rural people, because the demand for wool caused landowners to enclose fields for more pasture, leaving insufficient land to grow food. They consolidated small farms, threw off the tenant farmers, seized common land and did whatever they could to produce more wool and other products for manufacturing. Farm families could no longer be self-reliant, but had to move to the towns, seek paid employment and buy food. The price of wheat increased. The arrival of the potato kept many from starving, and helped fuel the industrial revolution. And the deprivations persuaded people to try the unfamiliar food. Potatoes yield up to four times the calories than grain from the same area of land. Half a hectare of potatoes and the milk from one cow can feed a whole family. Potatoes also made good food for pigs and poultry.

Reading this book caused me to seek out Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger, about the Irish Famine of 1845. Potatoes feature prominently in that story. Potatoes arrived in Ireland between 1586 and 1603. The protestant Queen Elizabeth I was trying to keep control over Catholic Ireland, which was close allies with France, Spain and Italy, rival European powers. After almost a century of wars, the 1691 treaty of Limerick, gave England control, with English Protestant settlers holding most of the best land, in over 2000 estates each of 2000-4000 acres. This confiscated land funneled wealth back to England, and depleted Ireland. Many of the English landowners stayed in England and rented out the land. They developed no sense of responsibility towards the tenant farmers. They used agents as middlemen, to deal with rent collection and leases, which they often did by sub-letting on short leases, raising rents at every opportunity, and taking their cut before sending money to England. The landlords and agents had no legal obligation to maintain the land and buildings in a fit state, and so conditions worsened over time. Demand for exports of beef, hides, butter, ships’ biscuits led to more of the arable land being converted to pasture, displacing villagers’ food. Once again, market-driven economies displaced ancient systems that included mutual responsibility and compassion.

Mulched June-planted potatoes. Credit Kathryn Simmons
Mulched June-planted potatoes.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

As happened in other cultures, the arrival of the potato enabled people to hang on longer. In Ireland, agricultural history included a high value given to cattle as suppliers of milk. Oats was the most widely grown grain, but wheat the most valued. Wheat was grown for sale, oats for food. But the need to sell wheat took land that oats might have grown on. Livestock was exported to England in huge numbers. Butter also sold in large quantities. The need to pay the increasing rents stole the food they needed for sustenance. The potato saved lives and livelihoods, for a while. In fact the new potato-and-milk diet was healthier than the impoverished version of the old diet. More potatoes could be grown in the shrunken garden space. Famine and destitution were averted, for a while.

Farm workers ate prodigious amounts of potatoes: up to14-21 pounds each, per day! Average consumption for a male laborer was more like 10 pounds of potatoes per day, with a cup of milk at each meal. Nutritionally, this is a good diet, providing 4000 calories and all the protein, calcium, iron and vitamins needed. Workers lived longer and had more babies, causing an impressive population boom. After 150 years of success, the 1740-41 potato crop failed due to a very cold winter followed by a miserable summer. Other food was in short supply too, for the same reasons. Whole villages died out, showing again, the risks of monocultures and over-reliance on any one crop. However, the potato bounced back from this disaster and made spectacular advances for another 50 years. Improved varieties, fewer people eating, luckier weather, all led to better fortunes for the survivors. The landlords took the opportunity to extract harder work and higher yields of grain from the workers. Agriculture shifted from livestock to arable, and exports of grain and linen soared.

European empire-building led to increased requirements to provision colonies as well as colonizers, until the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, when grain prices tumbled. Competition for land in Ireland was intense. Many of the landless workers were evicted by landlords consolidating farmland. Other pieces of land were sub-divided into tiny parcels at exorbitant rents. The Lumper, a potato variety introduced in the early 19th century, gave yields 20-30% higher than the old varieties, although it was less nutritious and more susceptible to disease. In 1815, 3.3 million Irish subsisted entirely on potatoes, from a population of 4.7 million. The others still had potatoes as the main item of their diets. Government commissions all forecast disaster, but nothing was done for over 20 years. In the 1830s, a stringent Poor Law was enacted, which provided workhouses in which relief was provided to families only. People who could not get in the workhouses received no help at all. The theory was to make the workhouses nasty so that only really desperate people would go there.

October potato harvest. Credit Twin Oaks.
October potato harvest. Credit Twin Oaks.

There were 118 workhouses in operation by 1845, when the previously unknown Late Blight struck. There had been localized potato diseases and famines earlier, but the complete death of all potato plants was a new level of disaster. Everything of any value was sold by people desperate for food, until they had no money and no food was available for purchase anyway. In response, the British government established relief depots supplying Indian meal (maize from the Americas). But still, they did not give this food away. The decision-makers had no understanding of the desperate circumstances of the rural people. Politically there was a strong government belief in the rule of market forces. Jails filled up and then people were deported to Australia or North America. The workhouses became bankrupt as costs could not be covered by a decreasing pool of local rate-payers (the landowners) able to pay.

Corn Laws had been in operation for centuries, to guarantee income to landowners producing wheat and other cereals (collectively known as corn). Imports were restricted and taxed. By the nineteenth century most people bought food rather than grew it, and it became clear that they were paying to protect the corn farmers from what could have been cheap imports. The movement to repeal the Corn Laws would bring in cheaper food, reducing demand for higher wages and opening the way to free trade generally. The might of industrialists was winning over the might of the farm landowners (still the majority of the Members of Parliament). The fate of the starving people of Ireland was also a factor. In fact it was the major factor which determined John Peel to campaign for Corn Law abolition, which was achieved in 1846.

After the first outbreak of Late Blight in Ireland in 1845, it took until 1883 to discover and develop Bordeaux mixture as a preventative. Scientists had noticed that although the airborne spores of Late Blight Phytophthora infestans are almost everywhere, it takes the right conditions before an outbreak can take hold: a period of 48 hours with temperatures holding above 10°C and humidity above 75%, followed by a week of incubation. Farmers could be forewarned.

Potatoes being harvested. Credit Kathryn Simmons
Potatoes being harvested.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

The Irish emigrated by the million, becoming urban factory hands. Redcliffe Salaman, an early twentieth century potato breeder, noted that the potato “came as a heaven-sent gift to the leaders of industry; its use was urged not only by the employers, but by many well-intentioned persons who failed to appreciate its implications.” Industrialists could pay low wages and keep costs down, so long as potatoes provided cheap food. Today cheap junk food plays the role potatoes played then, but the nutrition is a lot worse. The slave trade had been abolished, but a new generation of exploited people filled their place. The Industrial Revolution thrived by pitting one worker against another, driving wages down. Friedrich Engels wrote about this in The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. Tellingly, it was not published in English until 1892.

As Thomas Carlyle publically admitted in 1899, “England is guilty towards Ireland; and reaps at last, in full measure, the fruit of fifteen generations of wrong-doing.” The Irish potato famine did force the British government to start confronting the exploitative system of landownership, giving tenants some more security and rights to acquire larger pieces of land if they could afford to. Large-scale emigration reduced competition for land, and by the time Late Blight struck again in 1890, there were more food options between the people and starvation.

Meanwhile, scientists got to work on the potato, and many varieties suited to the latitude and climate reached the market. In the Potato Boom of 1903-1904, Archibald Findlay, an unscrupulous potato breeder, introduced the “Up-to-Date” variety, perhaps by horticultural plagiarism. It became a favorite, and put Findlay in (false) good-standing when he introduced “Northern Star” to great excitement. Supplies were limited, and seed potatoes sold at escalating prices. Before growers had even had time to harvest a crop of Northern Star, Findlay introduced the “Eldorado” potato at even higher prices (single tubers for more than $200 each in 1904!). The bubble burst when wretchedly poor crops of Eldorado were harvested, and the variety was found to simply be an old variety, Evergood, which had fallen from favor.

Potato harvest. Credit Twin Oaks Community
Potato harvest.
Credit Twin Oaks Community

In the Soviet Union, the sequence of events between 1914 and 1920 (war, revolution, civil war, drought, political disregard for the fate of the masses), led to a terrible famine in 1921, in which 5 million people died of starvation. Once the political elites began to accept foreign aid, 10 million people began to receive food aid. Money was invested in researching more and better food crops, from across the globe, until Stalin decreed uniformity, cut research funding, handed research over to a political appointee and collectivized agriculture. Somehow the research on potato genetics managed to quietly continue below the radar. A vast collection of material from primitive and cultivated potatoes had been collected, and studies found many useful traits within their collection. This work was acknowledged around the world, at the same time as Nicolay Vavilov, the main force behind the work, was accused of sabotaging the Soviet Union’s agriculture, fired from his post, arrested and charged with rightist conspiracy and sent to prison for 10 years. Fortunately, his work set off interest in collecting expeditions from other countries, including one from England to Peru, where cold-tolerant wild potatoes were found. This 1939 British Empire Potato Collecting Expedition to South America came home with 1164 live specimens. After quarantine, this became the basis for the Commonwealth Potato Collection, now held in Dundee, Scotland as a resource for breeders and researchers.

In 1971 the International Potato Centre (CIP) was founded in Peru to preserve genetic resources and alleviate poverty. In particular, CIP seeks to breed varieties resistant to Late Blight. High levels of resistance have been achieved, but over time the pathogen overcomes the resistance. One example is “Canchan” which was widely grown in Peru in the 1990s, but succumbed at the beginning of the 21st century. CIP breeders are pursuing an alternative approach which employs some resistance on several genes rather than total resistance on one gene. Some were tested in 2004 in the high Andes (where Late Blight had now reached, due to climate change) Such breeding work is being shared across the world.

In Maoist China, extravagant untrue claims were made of miracle vegetables with massive yields, while in reality, peasants were starving. They were encouraged to report high yields, and were then taxed (in produce) on those fictitious harvests, driving them deeper into trouble, as accusations of hiding food followed from an inability to pay the taxes. The government denied food shortages and famine. In the winter of 1959-60, 500 million people faced starvation. (The Irish famine the previous century caused 8 million to be threatened by starvation.) A minimum of 30 million people died as a consequence of the Great Leap Forward. It could be as many as 80 million – we will probably never know). All these deaths were avoidable, and not caused by natural disaster or war. China refused to ask for aid, and kept the famine secret. Potatoes might have helped more, but they were not considered a priority crop, and so farmers grew them on a small scale for themselves, after the end of the day’s official workload.

In 1978, after Mao’s death and the reforms of Deng Xiaoping, the value of the potato was noticed. Given the chance, farmers quickly took advantage of official approval to grow more potatoes. Seed was provided by CIP, and the Crop Research Institute in Yunnan Province developed the “Cooperation 88” potato variety, which yielded up to 60 tons per hectare. By 2005, China’s output of potatoes was 73 million tons, 25% of the world’s total. In recent years, the expanding population and related increase in urban areas are causing concerns about the need to increase food imports in competition with the rest of the world. The world food supply has also meanwhile been decreased by land given over to growing biofuels. The last photo in the book is of a Macdonald’s in China.

Everyone wants fries! Or chips! Grow your own! You’ll never take those lumpy tubers for granted again.

Our root cellar for potatoes. Photo McCune Porter
Our root cellar for potatoes. Photo McCune Porter