Thursday, December 08, 2011
How the Potato Changed the World
Smithsonian.com have published a lengthy article on the importance of the humble spud.
Many researchers believe that the potato’s arrival in northern Europe spelled an end to famine there. More than that, as the historian William H. McNeill has argued, the potato led to empire: “By feeding rapidly growing populations, [it] permitted a handful of European nations to assert dominion over most of the world between 1750 and 1950.” The potato, in other words, fuelled the rise of the West.
When Prussia was hit by famine in 1744, King Frederick the Great, a potato enthusiast, ordered the peasantry to eat the tubers. In England, 18th-century farmers denounced S. tuberosum as an advance scout for hated Roman Catholicism. “No Potatoes, No Popery!” was an election slogan in 1765.
Any general history of Europe without an entry in its index for S. tuberosum should be ignored. Hunger was a familiar presence in 17th- and 18th-century Europe. Cities were provisioned reasonably well in most years, their granaries carefully monitored, but country people teetered on a precipice. France, the historian Fernand Braudel once calculated, had 40 nationwide famines between 1500 and 1800, more than one per decade. This appalling figure is an underestimate, he wrote, “because it omits the hundreds and hundreds of local famines.” France was not exceptional; England had 17 national and big regional famines between 1523 and 1623. The continent simply could not reliably feed itself.
The potato changed all that. Every year, many farmers left fallow as much as half of their grain land, to rest the soil and fight weeds (which were plowed under in summer). Now smallholders could grow potatoes on the fallow land, controlling weeds by hoeing. Because potatoes were so productive, the effective result, in terms of calories, was to double Europe’s food supply.
“For the first time in the history of western Europe, a definitive solution had been found to the food problem,” the Belgian historian Christian Vandenbroeke concluded in the 1970s. By the end of the 18th century, potatoes had become in much of Europe what they were in the Andes—a staple. Roughly 40 percent of the Irish ate no solid food other than potatoes; the figure was between 10 percent and 30 percent in the Netherlands, Belgium, Prussia and perhaps Poland. Routine famine almost disappeared in potato country, a 2,000-mile band that stretched from Ireland in the west to Russia’s Ural Mountains in the east. At long last, the continent could produce its own dinner.