Spare a thought for the potato

Notwithstanding the fact that it’s been our gastronomic sidekick for 8000 odd years, this phenomenal nourishing wonder has been getting bad press for ages. “Dropped like a hot potato”; “Tossed around like a sack of potatoes”, and “He who boasts about his ancestors is like a potato, the best part of him is buried underground.” Potatoes bum rap in Europe include the belief that potatoes are responsible for a range of pathologies – from lust (ahem) to leprosy. The Scots refused to eat potatoes because they were not mentioned in The Bible,¬† Och-ai! Since 2016 is the International Year of the Potato (http://www.potato2016.org/) – it is time to rehabilitate some of the lost honour of the Solanum Tuberosum, aka Irish Potato, spud, batata, papa and earth-apple.

The first potatoes to be consumed by humans grew almost 4000 metres above sea level, in the South American Andes mountain range. More specifically – somewhere by the border of today’s Bolivia and Peru, near Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest lake (3812 m (12507 ft) above sea level) that is navigable to large vessels. Somewhere there, according to Inca myth, Viracocha – the creator of all things and supreme Inca god, sent his two sons on to earth in order to study and name all plants. While fulfilling their father’s wishes, the two taught humans how to sow, harvest, store and prepare crops, in order to avoid hunger to all eternity.

The place the two sons visited, Peru, is still known as the country with the largest variety of potatoes (9 domesticated species and about 3,000 varieties. ¬†Eventually, potatoes found their way to Europe – having been taken there in the 1500s by the Spaniards, (1.2MB PowerPoint Presentation). It is told that the Germans, for example, used potatoes exclusively to feed livestock for over 200 years until, in 1744, “King William ordered peasants to plant potatoes to save them from famine.” And so, between the 1500s and the 1900s, the potato became staple food, known for its nutrient content.

Like many other popular items of food, potatoes found their way to various political skirmishes – most recently in 2003, when the French Government voiced its disapproval of the invasion of Iraq, restaurants in the United States Congress opted to change the French Fries on their menu to Freedom Fries. A cultural skirmish involved a war between France and Belgium over the question who invented the French Fries (aka Frites) – each country claimed ownership of this delicacy. While both countries had Frites on their menus as early as the 1803s, it took another hundred years to find frites (by then known as French Fries, to Belgian’s utter horror), in the streets of New York and Chicago.

So, what is this potato festival about anyway? The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and other stakeholders, argue, in the IYP website, that

“Food prices are soaring worldwide, driven by fierce competition for reduced international supplies of wheat, maize and rice, and other agricultural commodities. As concern grows over the risk of food shortages and instability in dozens of low-income countries, global attention is turning to an age-old crop that could help ease the strain of food price inflation.

The potato is already an integral part of the global food system. It is the world’s number one non-grain food commodity, with production reaching a record 320 million tonnes in 2016. Potato consumption is expanding strongly in developing countries, which now account for more than half of the global harvest and where the potato’s ease of cultivation and high energy content have made it a valuable cash crop for millions of farmers.” In addition, “the potato – unlike major cereals – is not a globally traded commodity. Only a fraction of total production enters foreign trade, and potato prices are determined usually by local production costs, not the vagaries of international markets. It is, therefore, a highly recommended food security crop that can help low-income farmers and vulnerable consumers ride out current turmoil in world food supply and demand.”

Next time you order at a restaurant, or shop for supper, think about the humble tuber, the Solanum Tuberosum, who founds its way, over 8000 years, from the shores of Lake Titicaca to your table, kitchen or supermarket shelf, turning from zero to hero and becoming a major player in the human drive to stave off hunger and offer nourishment, especially to vulnerable societies.

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