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The p otato is an edible tuber originating in highlands of South America. Growing potatoes for food value has spread across the world to the extent that it is now the world’s fourth most important food crop, following maize, wheat, and rice. The vegetable (Solanum tuberosum) is gaining in importance globally, resulting principally from increased growth in suitable areas of India and China. Global production has doubled over the last two decades and is forecast to do so again by 2020. China has the largest crop of potatoes, with annual production of around 80.5 million tons (73 million tonnes), from a worldwide total of 356 million tons (323 million tonnes). The Russian Federation produces 39.7 million tons (36 million tonnes) per year, and the third largest producer is India, which grows an estimated 27.6 million tons (25 million tonnes). The total value of the crop amounts to around $40 billion annually.
While potatoes are found in a number of different varieties, most share the characteristic of being low in vitamins and other nutrients but comparatively high in carbohydrates, making them a good source of energy. However, potatoes are also characterized by high levels of vitamin C and protein. The combination of ease of growth with the energy value of the plant means that potatoes are particularly important to people who are poor or forced to occupy marginal agricultural land. In recognition of this importance, the United Nations has designated 2008 the International Year of the Potato.
From its origins in the Peruvian and Bolivian plateau known as Titicaca, where as many as 5,500 different varieties have been developed over the years, the potato was taken to Europe by the Spanish and adapted itself to new climates at a time when rapid population increase was fueled by such transfers of technology. This process was not inevitable, nor was it immediately successful. Concerted efforts were required to make the potato popular in, for example, France, where it took nearly two centuries before it became accepted.
When potatoes were introduced in the United States, the wide open spaces of the Midwest states made large-scale production convenient and profitable. The leader in this process was a man named Luther Burbank, who grew new varieties in the United States in the early 19th century, in particular the Russet Burbank, which remains one of the most popular varieties in the country. The domination of the U.S. environment by human endeavor, including the establishment of large-scale damming and irrigation projects, enabled the economies of scale that now characterize the country’s agriculture. The desire to grow ever more quantities of crops such as potatoes has led to the physical transformation of a great deal of the landscape and it is far from clear if the use of water resources is sustainable. This has been accompanied by significant levels of research and development investment into the business of agriculture in the customary pattern of the public sector supporting the private. Despite all of this, new diseases and pestilences are still emerging in those areas around the world in which potatoes are being grown on a large-scale for the first time.
In terms of cuisine, potatoes have been found to be quite flexible in being adapted to local tastes and are prepared in many ways. Cooking is necessary because the raw potatoes contain chemical substances that can have negative health impacts. Care should also be taken about the black “eyes” that develop in potatoes and are also potentially problematic.
In the modern Western world, great quantities of potatoes are eaten in deep fried snack form, often with added salt, artificial coloring, and flavoring. These snacks are believed by some to add to obesity problems in the societies in which they have become popular. They have become part of the standard package of quick meals in leading multiple fast food chains and, for the sake of security of supply and taste, are customarily processed, powdered, and frozen, and such methods further reduce the already limited amount of vitamins within the potatoes. The move to becoming more of a processed food was stimulated among producers and marketers by declining sales led by fears of the health issues related to over-reliance on potatoes. Now there are fears in traditional rice-eating countries such as Japan that, as part of packaged fast food meals, the potato will suppress production of rice and will further contribute to the increasing obesity problem, not to mention the cultural implications. The use of potatoes in distilling vodka in the states of the former Soviet Union and neighboring areas has also contributed to excessive drunkenness as the failure of postCommunist policies has led to widespread popular discontent and despair. Again, a simple vegetable proves itself to have numerous uses into which deep meanings have become embedded to the extent that it is almost impossible to separate the original item from its cultural significance.
- Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “Buried Treasure: The Potato,” Spotlight (FAO, 2006).
- Washington State Potato Commission, https://www.potatoes.com/;
- Larry Zuckerman, The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World (North Point Press, 1999).