The history of the potato: The humble vegetable that changed the world

Saison d'octobre by Jules Bastien-Lepage
Saison d'octobre by Jules Bastien-Lepage, 1878 | Public Domain

For something so ordinary, the potato has had a quite remarkable history. From its origins as a reliable crop grown by a small population of mountain dwellers in South America to one of the most important food crops on the planet, the humble spud has fuelled empires and revolutions, filled the bellies of the poor, adorned the costumes of royalty, caused the mass migration of millions, changed the face of agriculture and given rise to the environmental movement. More than any other foodstuff, the potato has played a crucial role in shaping the world we live in today.

The potato is believed to have been domesticated in the Andes mountains about 10,000 years ago. A robust crop ideally suited to the harsh, frozen conditions of the world’s longest mountain range, the potato was a nutritious foodstuff that had the added advantage of being much less susceptible to spoilage than other crops, making it the ideal food to stave off famines - a scourge that plagued other parts of the world such as Europe for centuries.

Just as they do today, the people of the region boiled, mashed and baked the potatoes they grew, but they also produced something called chuño, which involved leaving the potatoes outside to freeze overnight and then letting them thaw out in the morning. This process was repeated until the potatoes were small and squashy, at which point the water was squeezed out of them so they eventually resembled modern-day gnocchi, which was then used in spicy Andean stews.

Chuños did not rot, instead, they kept for years and years without the need for refrigeration. This made them an ideal staple in times when crops failed and food would otherwise have been scarce. Unlike their European counterparts, the poor of the Andes were far less likely to starve, and it was the potato they had to thank for that.

When the Spanish arrived in the region in the 1530s, they were at first reluctant to eat this strange - and to them incredibly bland - foodstuff. However, they did recognise its nutritional value. After bringing the Incan Empire to its knees, the conquistadors fed the slaves who dug out the silver and gold in their mines on potatoes, which kept them healthy and strong.

It wasn’t long before potatoes made their way to the Old World. Contrary to popular belief, it was not the buccaneering Sir Francis Drake or Sir Walter Raleigh’s employee Thomas Harriot who introduced the potato to Europe. It is believed Spanish sailors in the 1570s brought potatoes back with them across the Atlantic, having introduced them to ships’ stores as a hardy foodstuff that easily survived the long journeys between South America and Spain. Leftover potatoes were cut up and planted and a new European crop was born. A decade after the potato made its entry into Spain, the crop was introduced to the British Isles.

Uptake of this newfangled vegetable was initially slow. Farmers distrusted the plant, with some believing it caused fever and even leprosy. However, it was quickly recognised by the great and the good that the potato was a calorific miracle that could fill the belly of a working man and keep his hunger at bay for hours, making him much more productive.

Countries across Europe began to encourage the potato’s cultivation. Even royalty got involved. Frederick the Great of Russia recognised the potato’s value and ordered its planting on a vast scale. In France, where uptake of the potato was slower than anywhere else in Europe, the potato flower briefly became a fashion item among nobility keen to see its popularity grow. Queen Marie Antoinette wore a garland of potato flowers in her hair while her husband, King Louis XVI, wore a potato flower in his lapel. What was good enough for the bigwigs in Versailles was good enough for everyone else, and the French finally jumped on the potato bandwagon, leading to a centuries-long dispute with the Belgians over who invented the French fry.

Once the potato got a foothold in Europe, there was no stopping it. Unlike crops such as wheat and barley, the potato is far less prone to rot and disease and the vagaries of the weather; it has a high calorific value; it is easy to cultivate and it grows in abundance. This made it a godsend to a continent that was no stranger to famine. Before the introduction of the potato, starving to death was an ever-present threat to the people of Europe, especially the poor. When traditional crops failed, disaster was quick to follow. France alone suffered from forty nationwide famines between 1500 and 1800. The death toll from famine across the continent was enormous. People in the countryside were especially vulnerable to starvation - a state of affairs for which there appeared to be no solution. The introduction of the potato changed all that.

Suddenly, there was a hardy, cheap, easy-to-grow solution to Europe’s hunger problem. Before the introduction of the potato, fields were left fallow every other year to rest the soil, thus leaving up to half of the continent’s crop-growing land unused and unproductive, adding to the threat of food shortages. Smallholders realised they could grow potatoes in these fields instead of leaving them empty.

Within a century, Europe’s calorific food supply was doubled and famines, while never completely eradicated, became rarer and rarer and the poor populations of countries from Ireland to the Ural Mountains grew bigger and stronger as their calorie intake increased massively. The hunger problem in Europe had been solved, and it was all thanks to the humble spud.

Wherever the potato was planted, it completely revolutionised food production Perhaps nowhere is this better illustrated than in Ireland. Before the introduction of the potato, the Irish population was particularly vulnerable to famine. The potato arrived in the country via Basque fisherman who stopped off on the country’s west coast to dry their catches of cod. It quickly became the staple foodstuff of Ireland’s poor. By the end of the 18th Century, 40% of the country’s population ate nothing but potatoes, and it appeared that the ever-present threat of famine was a thing of the past. Unfortunately, storm clouds were gathering on the horizon.

Back in Peru where the potato had originated, a gold rush (of sorts) began to gather pace at the start of the 19th Century. The country was home to a collection of islands that were covered in 150-foot layers of bird guano. Rich in nitrogen, guano became incredibly desirable as a fertiliser in Europe and America. Peru became the world’s biggest exporter of guano, growing rich in the process. The European potato yield increased massively.

This abundance couldn’t have come at a better time. Europe was rapidly industrialising, and the food that filled the bellies of the workers of the Industrial Revolution was the potato. However, the guano that helped farmers grow ever larger quantities of potatoes arrived on the shores of Europe with an unwanted guest - the potato blight. It would hit Ireland like a sledgehammer.

The blight arrived in Ireland in 1845 and would be a recurring problem for the next seven years. Annual potato harvests were devastated, plunging a population that had come to rely solely on potatoes as its only food source into starvation. Over the course of what would become known as the Potato Famine, a million Irish men, women and children starved to death.

With no end in sight, a further two million left the island to seek a better life elsewhere, almost three-quarters of them taking advantage of cheap travel to the United States, creating the large US-Irish population we see in the States today. Ireland itself never fully recovered from this mass exodus, and even today it has the unusual distinction of being the only country in the world whose population is smaller now than it was 150 years ago.

While the blight had a devastating effect on Europe, America had something equally nasty to deal with - the Colorado potato beetle.

For millennia, the insect had been quietly minding its own business, content to feed on the buffalo bur, a distant relative of the potato. However, when the Spanish moved up into North America, they brought the horses and cows that lived among the buffalo bur in Mexico and Central America along with them and hitching a ride on the buffalo bur were the beetles. Once the potato had been established as a crop in North America, the beetle took a liking to it. By the 1860s, it had reached the Missouri River and an invasion of the rich potato fields that lay beyond was inevitable. The effects of this tiny little invader were devastating as it destroyed field after field of potatoes from the Deep South to the Atlantic coast.

Farmers tried everything to combat the invasion of these voracious little orange invaders, but for twenty years it was to no avail. Then, in 1880, a farmer threw some green paint out onto his infested plants and was surprised to see it killed off the beetles. The paint contained a mixture of arsenic and copper called ‘Paris green’. A couple of years later, a researcher in France discovered that potato blight could be killed with copper sulfate and lime. Before long, potato crops were being sprayed with Paris green and copper sulfate, killing off the blight and the beetle at the same time. It was the birth of the modern pesticide industry, which in turn led to the creation of the environmental movement.

The growth of the pesticide industry led to the potato becoming one of the most important agricultural products across vast swathes of the world. Into the 20th Century, the humble potato was the staple food of millions. When industrial warfare ravaged across Europe, the potato’s importance in feeding soldiers and civilians alike was such that governments of all colours from Nazi Germany to communist Russia lionised the crop - it was seen as everyone’s patriotic duty to grow as many potatoes as they could. After World War II, it was the potato that nourished a shattered populace, and in the decades since its reach has expanded ever eastwards, with India and China now the biggest producers.

From its humble beginnings feeding a few mountain folks in a cold corner of South America, the potato has become the staple food of millions across the globe. It has been established in every corner of the world, filling the bellies of generations of workers and eradicating hunger from countries where the threat of starvation was once commonplace. When it has succumbed to disease and infestation, its absence from the table has brought whole societies to their knees. Of all the foodstuffs cultivated by man, the humble spud has had the most impact in shaping the way we live today. The potato is truly the vegetable that changed the world.

Written by:

BP Perry