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The potato was first domesticated in the region of modern-day southern Peru and extreme northwestern Bolivia between 8000 and 5000 BCE. It has since spread around the world and become a staple crop in many countries.
In the Altiplano, potatoes provided the principal energy source for the Inca Empire, its predecessors, and its Spanish successor. In Bolivia and Peru above 10,000 feet altitude, tubers exposed to the cold night air turned into chuño; when kept in permanently frozen underground storehouses, chuño can be stored for years with no loss of nutritional value. The Spanish fed chuño to the silver miners who produced vast wealth in the 16th century for the Spanish government.
Sailors returning from the Andes to Spain with silver presumably brought maize and potatoes for their own food on the trip. Historians speculate that leftover tubers (and maize) were carried ashore and planted: "We think that the potato arrived some years before the end of the 16th century, by two different ports of entry: the first, logically, in Spain around 1570, and the second via the British isles between 1588 and 1593 ... we find traces of the transport of potatoes travelling from the Canaries to Antwerp in 1567 ... we can say that the potato was introduced there [the Canary islands] from South America around 1562 ... the first written mention of the potato [is] ... a receipt for delivery dated 28 november 1567 between Las Palmas in the Grand Canaries and Antwerp." Basque fishermen from Spain used potatoes as ships' stores for their voyages across the Atlantic in the 16th century, and introduced the tuber to western Ireland, where they landed to dry their cod. In 1553, in the book Crónica del Peru, Pedro Cieza de Leon mentions he saw it in Quito, Popayán, and Pasto in 1538. The English privateer Sir Francis Drake, returning from his circumnavigation, or Sir Walter Raleigh's employee Thomas Harriot are commonly credited with introducing potatoes into England. In 1588, botanist Carolus Clusius made a painting of what he called "Papas Peruanorum" from a specimen in the Low Countries; in 1601 he reported that potatoes were in common use in northern Italy for animal fodder and for human consumption.
The Spanish had an empire across Europe, and brought potatoes for their armies. Peasants along the way adopted the crop, which was less often pillaged by marauding armies than above-ground stores of grain. Across most of northern Europe, where open fields prevailed, potatoes were strictly confined to small garden plots because field agriculture was strictly governed by custom that prescribed seasonal rhythms for plowing, sowing, harvesting and grazing animals on fallow and stubble. This meant that potatoes were barred from large-scale cultivation because the rules allowed only grain to be planted in the open fields. In France and Germany government officials and noble landowners promoted the rapid conversion of fallow land into potato fields after 1750. The potato thus became an important staple crop in northern Europe. Famines in the early 1770s contributed to its acceptance, as did government policies in several European countries and climate change during the Little Ice Age, when traditional crops in this region did not produce as reliably as before. At times and places when and where most other crops failed, potatoes could still typically be relied upon to contribute adequately to food supplies during colder years.
In France, at the end of the 16th century, the potato had been introduced to the Franche-Comté, the Vosges of Lorraine and Alsace. By the end of the 18th century it was written in the 1785 edition of Bon Jardinier: "There is no vegetable about which so much has been written and so much enthusiasm has been shown ... The poor should be quite content with this foodstuff." It had widely replaced the turnip and rutabaga by the 19th century.
French physician Antoine Parmentier studied the potato intensely and in Examen chymique des pommes de terres (Paris, 1774) showed their enormous nutritional value. King Louis XVI and his court eagerly promoted the new crop, with Queen Marie Antoinette even wearing a headdress of potato flowers at a fancy dress ball. The annual potato crop of France soared to 21 million hectoliters in 1815 and 117 million in 1840, allowing a concomitant growth in population while avoiding the Malthusian trap. Although potatoes had become widely familiar in Russia by 1800, they were confined to garden plots until the grain failure in 1838–1839 persuaded peasants and landlords in central and northern Russia to devote their fallow fields to raising potatoes. Potatoes yielded from two to four times more calories per acre than grain did, and eventually came to dominate the food supply in eastern Europe. Boiled or baked potatoes were cheaper than rye bread, just as nutritious, and did not require a gristmill for grinding. On the other hand cash-oriented landlords realized that grain was much easier to ship, store and sell, so both grain and potatoes coexisted.
Throughout Europe, the most important new food in the 19th century was the potato, which had three major advantages over other foods for the consumer: its lower rate of spoilage, its bulk (which easily satisfied hunger), and its cheapness. The crop slowly spread across Europe, such that, for example, by 1845 it occupied one-third of Irish arable land. Potatoes comprised about 10% of the caloric intake of Europeans. Along with several other foods that either originated in the Americas or were successfully grown or harvested there, potatoes sustained European populations.
In Britain, the potato promoted economic development by underpinning the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. It served as a cheap source of calories and nutrients that was easy for urban workers to cultivate on small backyard plots. Potatoes became popular in the north of England, where coal was readily available, so a potato-driven population boom provided ample workers for the new factories. Marxist Friedrich Engels even declared that the potato was the equal of iron for its "historically revolutionary role". The Dutch potato-starch industry grew rapidly in the 19th century, especially under the leadership of entrepreneur Willem Albert Scholten (1819–92).
In Ireland, the expansion of potato cultivation was due entirely to the landless laborers, renting tiny plots from landowners who were interested only in raising cattle or in producing grain for market. A single acre of potatoes and the milk of a single cow was enough to feed a whole Irish family a monotonous but nutritionally adequate diet for a healthy, vigorous (and desperately poor) rural population. Often even poor families grew enough extra potatoes to feed a pig that they could sell for cash.
A lack of genetic diversity from the low number of varieties left the crop vulnerable to disease. In 1845, a plant disease known as late blight (so-called because it tended to spread exponentially in late summer), caused by the fungus-like oomycete Phytophthora infestans, spread rapidly through the poorer communities of western Ireland, resulting in the crop failures that led to the Great Irish Famine.
The Lumper potato, widely cultivated in western and southern Ireland before and during the great famine, was bland, wet, and poorly resistant to the potato blight, but yielded large crops and usually provided adequate calories for peasants and laborers. Heavy dependence on this potato led to disaster when the blight quickly turned harvest-ready and newly harvested potatoes into a putrid mush. The Irish Famine in the western and southern parts of Ireland between 1845–49 was a catastrophic failure in the food supply that led to approximately a million deaths from famine and (especially) diseases that attacked weakened bodies, and to massive emigration to Britain, the U.S., Canada and elsewhere. During the famine years roughly one million Irish immigrated, this tide was not turned until the 20th century, when Ireland's population stood at less than half of the pre-famine level of 8 million.
It is generally believed that potatoes entered Africa with colonists, who consumed them as a vegetable rather than as a staple starch. Shipping records from 1567 show that the first place outside of Central and South America where potatoes were grown were the Canary Islands. As in other continents, despite its advantages as an anti-famine, high-elevation alternative to grain, potatoes were first resisted by local farmers who believed they were poisonous. Colonialists also promoted them as a low cost food and so it was a symbol of domination. In former European colonies of Africa, potatoes were initially consumed only occasionally, but increased production made them a staple in certain areas. Potatoes tended to become more popular in wartime due to their being able to be stored in the ground. In present day Africa they have become a vegetable or co-staple crop.
In higher regions of Rwanda, potatoes have become a new staple food crop. Prior to the 1994 Rwandan genocide consumption was as high as 153 to 200 kg per year – higher than in any Western European country. Recently farmers have developed the potato as a cash crop after introducing several new varieties brought back by migrant laborers from Uganda and other varieties from Kenya.
The potato diffused widely after 1600, becoming a major food resource in Europe and East Asia. Following its introduction into China toward the end of the Ming dynasty, the potato immediately became a delicacy of the imperial family. After the middle period of the Qianlong reign (1735–96), population increases and a subsequent need to increase grain yields coupled with greater peasant geographic mobility led to the rapid spread of potato cultivation throughout China, and it was acclimated to local natural conditions.
Boomgaard (2003) looks at the adoption of various root and tuber crops in Indonesia throughout the colonial period and examines the chronology and reasons for progressive adoption of foreign crops: sweet potato, Irish potato, bengkuang (yam beans), and cassava.
The potato was introduced in the Philippines during the late 16th century, and to Java and China during the 17th century. It was well established as a crop in India by the late 18th century and in Africa by the mid-20th century.
Potatoes were planted in Idaho as early as 1838; by 1900 the state's production exceeded a million bushels (about 27,000 tonnes). Prior to 1910, the crops were stored in barns or root cellars, but, by the 1920s, potato cellars or barns came into use. U.S. potato production has increased steadily; two-thirds of the crop comes from Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Maine, and potato growers have strengthened their position in both domestic and foreign markets.
By the 1960s, the Canadian Potato Research Centre in Fredericton, New Brunswick, was one of the top six potato research institutes in the world. Established in 1912 as a dominion experimental station, the station began in the 1930s to concentrate on breeding new varieties of disease-resistant potatoes. In the 1950s–1960s, the growth of the French fry industry in New Brunswick led to a focus on developing varieties for the industry. By the 1970s, the station's potato research was broader than ever before, but the station and its research programs had changed, as emphasis was placed on serving industry rather than potato farmers in general. Scientists at the station even began describing their work using engineering language rather than scientific prose. Potatoes are Canada's most important vegetable crop; they are grown commercially in all its provinces, led by Prince Edward Island. In modern days potatoes have grown in popularity due to their versatility and ability to be used for many different dishes of food.
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