Potato has undoubtedly become the staple and go to food for most people, so much so that 2008 was celebrated as the International Year of the Potato. Topping the list for having the highest production and consumption across the world, potato has an interesting history of its own.
What is the origin of its name?
The word ‘’potato’’ came from the Carib term ‘batata’, used for sweet potato, which was discovered decades before the potato itself. The earliest history of potato cultivation goes down to roughly 10,000 years ago when the Andeans of Peru and Bolivia first came across the tuber. Nevertheless, it got due recognition in the early 1500s only, when the Spanish Conquistadors went on an expedition to loot gold from Mexico.
When did it reach Europe?
A great diversity of this plant was then brought to Europe in the late 16th century. In 1596, Swiss naturalist Gaspard Bauhin gave it the name of Solanum tuberosum. Dr K.T. Achaya in his book ‘A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food’ stated that potatoes in India were first accepted only by the Europeans, and later by the Muslims. Nonetheless, Europeans’ adoption of potato was a gradual process. Having been dismissed initially as a useless vegetable with no edible value, potato made its place in the European hearts only when the shrinking and starving population of France found it’s sustenance and survival in this crop. In the 18th century, the King of France, Louis XVI, then motivated his people for the mass cultivation of potato, to an extent that its large production grabbed peoples’ attention, thereby making it Europe’s most popular food. Interestingly, Louis XVI’s wife, the famous queen Marie Antoinette, too contributed to its popularity by decorating her curls with potato flowers, a trend that was later adopted by all noble European ladies.
Irish Potato Famine and its Aftermath
The Irish potato famine, which is commonly known as the period of ‘Great starvation’, began during the onset of 1845, when a fungus like organism, known as Phytophthora infestans, rapidly spread throughout Ireland. This disease was responsible for ruining one-half of the potato crop that year. Potato famine also led to the destruction of about three-quarters of the potato crop for the next seven years. In Ireland, tenant farmers who heavily relied on the potato as a major source of food faced many adverse consequences. This infestation had a disastrous impact on Ireland’s population. Before the end of the famine in 1852, around one million people had died due to starvation and hunger.
Potato Spreads to Other Regions
A major consequence of the Irish potato famine was the massive emigration from Ireland to other parts of the world. Predominantly, most of the people migrated to Britain, Canada, U.S and elsewhere. During the years of famine, approximately one million Irish emigrated to other countries. These Irish immigrants were familiar with the value of potato as a high energy food, and are believed to have introduced white potato to North America in the early part of the 18th century.
In Africa, potatoes are believed to have been brought by the colonists, who consumed it as a vegetable. Hence, potato was also considered a symbol of ‘domination’. It is believed that initially local farmers resisted growing potatoes, considering them poisonous. Also, in some European colonies of Africa, potato was consumed only occasionally. However, the rise in potato production made it a staple food in some areas. Potato served really well during the wartime, as it grew below the ground. It became one of the well established crops by the mid – 20th century, and has now got established as a staple in the present day Africa.
After 1600, potato was adopted as a major food crop by Europe and East Asia. It was further introduced in China towards the end of the Ming dynasty. Moreover, it became a delicacy for the royal family. Soon after the middle period of the Qianlong era in the Qing dynasty, population rose rapidly. This led to incremental increase in the potato cultivation by the local farmers. A few historians, like Edward Terry in some of his travel accounts, have mentioned how the growth of potato crop was encouraged in India and other Asian countries.
Reasons for the Mass Popularity and Cultivation of Potato
The potato is a very adaptable and accommodating plant. Mostly, potato requires cool climate for better growth, with temperature in the range of 15-20 degree celsius. However, this plant has an ability to grow well in a wide range of climatic conditions. Potatoes display a diversity in taste and texture, depending on the soil, altitude and climate of the region where the crop is grown.
Other Related Facts
During the First World War, a shortage of potato caused riots in Amsterdam, Netherlands in 1917. And some studies state that ‘Grenades’ made with potatoes helped a U.S ship sink a Japanese submarine in the Second World War.
As per FAOSTAT, 2019, the total potato production throughout the world is estimated at 388,191,000 tonnes in 2017. The potato sector of the world is undergoing drastic changes. Until 1990s, most of the potatoes were produced and consumed in North America, Europe and other countries which were part of the former Soviet Union. But now, dramatic increase in the production of potato can be noticed as demand in Asia, Africa and Latin America rises rapidly. As per available data, the total output production of the early 1960s was less than 30 million tonnes, but by 2007, it was more than 165 million tonnes. Other than this, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) clearly states that in the year 2005, for the very first time, the production of potato in the developing world overtook the production in the developed world. China is now the biggest potato producer in the world, and almost every third potato produced is from China or India.
The top 10 potato producing countries countries as of 2017 are:
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Potato and NASA
Potato is set to conquer new frontiers. In October 1995, a technology was invented by NASA and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA with an aim to feed astronauts who go on space voyages for longer duration. Here, you will be surprised to know that potato became the first vegetable that could be grown on space. Technologies like these aim to feed future space colonies, placing great reliance on potato.