The Potato

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Something So Small
The potato. When one thinks of this starchy, tuberous plant the image of a vaguely round,
brown lump immediately comes to mind. It is such a well-known image that is imbedded into the
brain of every person. The potato is such an extremely common commodity that in present times
and it becomes, almost accidentally, an almost essential part of everyone’s diet. As a result of
this great familiarity, the potato is also mostly taken for granted. Nobody would have thought
that the humble potato could have had any drastic effects on history. Nobody would believe that
the little spud would once have directed the fates of entire nations. As a matter of fact, the potato
did play a large role in shaping the way that civilization developed in terms of health, the food
industry, and other aspects of human society.
The potato has existed for a very long time, and in that time, it has made its way around
the world. Scientists currently believe that wild potatoes grew on the Chilean coast thirteen
thousand years ago, long before humans possessed any semblance of agriculture. Around seven
thousand years ago the Andean peoples began to farm the wild potatoes that had appeared in the
central Andean highlands. The Andean farmers discovered a way to freeze-dry potatoes, and
could preserve them for up to ten years. Sweet potatoes were brought to Spain with Columbus
when he returned home in 1493 after he found them in Haiti, and white potatoes from Bolivia
were introduced by later Spanish conquistadors in 1570. By 1600, potatoes were cultivated only
in gardens throughout Europe, and not yet as a primary field crop like wheat or the other grains.
For about two centuries after the potato was introduced to Europe there were a few
concerns as to why it did not spread, and was not as widely used as a result, as it may have
otherwise. One concern that limited the cultivation and acceptance of potatoes throughout
Europe was the fact that they were perceived by Europeans as the food of conquered peoples.
The problem with this perception was that the characterizations of these conquered peoples in the
minds of Europeans were that they were immoral and lazy. In addition, potatoes were feared due
to the fact that they were not mentioned in the Bible, and because they were falsely associated
with being toxic due to their relation to the nightshade family of plants. It is likely that these
negative perceptions were held primarily by the ruling upper class who could afford to shun the
potato. The lower and working classes, in all likelihood, more readily accepted the potato as an
invaluable source of nutrition that was relatively easy to cultivate.
By 1640, the potato began to be used as a field crop in Ireland, and by the eighteenth
century, it was one of the standard foods of the country, as much of a staple as bread or oats. On
average per day, farmers in Ireland would eat about 5.5 pounds of potatoes per person, and this
number would rise in the winter months. As a matter of correlation, the population of Ireland
doubled from four million to eight million between 1780 and 1841, and the potato was the
primary crop of that time period.
In England, by the eighteenth century, smaller farms were starting to become more
consolidated, which contributed to the development of enclosed large farms which sold their
goods directly to market. This added even more value to the potato for the poor rural worker,
especially when grain harvests dropped and prices rose. This is because potatoes yield more
product than grains, do not have the same seasonal drawbacks of grain, such as when summer
months are wet and do not require as much processing for cooking. However, the fact that the
poor relied so heavily on the potato ended up causing a terrible catastrophe when the potato
blight became prevalent throughout Ireland, and destroyed 90% of the potatoes being grown.
The primary reason for how the potato blight started was that a large portion of the world
was now growing a single type of potato. This provided diseases that thrive on this one type
plenty of opportunity to develop and spread. The blight was a fungal infection that harmed many
plants, but the wide spread use of the same type of potato allowed the infection to spread much
farther and affect many more potatoes than it would have been able to otherwise. Though the
potato blight is famously associated to Ireland, it actually first appeared in Belgium in 1844, and
then spread to other European countries, finally arriving in England by 1845. In most countries
that were affected by the blight, inhabitants were able to stockpile other types of food like grain
and maize and survive. Other countries, like France, were able to send non-infected potatoes to
areas that needed them most. Countries that depended heavily on the potato as a primary source
of nutrition in their diet, like Ireland, Prussia, and Belgium, fared the worst. It was estimated that
300,000 people from various countries around Europe died as a result of famines due to the
potato blight. When compared to Ireland, however, the results of these famines seem almost
inconsequential.
One particular detail that contributed to Ireland being affected far more negatively than
any other European country was that it was being controlled by the British Empire at the time,
and was a relatively poor country. Though there were actually many different crops grown in
Ireland, the British claimed these to be used in their trade agreements, which left the Irish to rely
on the relatively plentiful and easy to grow plant, the potato. In addition, Ireland did not receive
aid similar to that of the countries who were experiencing similar famine conditions. The British
also ruled the Irish in a feudal system, where the Irish farmers lived off of the crops that they
grew and the animals that they raised, and then passed on any profits to a British lord. This
created an even greater need for a crop that was widely available, that also provided sufficient
nutritious content to live off of, and the potato fit these criteria. About a third of the population of
Ireland was dependent on the potato, and they suffered extremely when the blight effectively
removed their main source of sustenance and income. Many farmers had to resort to eating their
seed crop in order to survive, which further deprived them of food and any way of recovering
financially. During this period evictions were commonplace, as both tenant and landowner had
lost their primary means of income. Evictions were essentially death sentences, as without a farm
from which to garner an income, or at the very least grow one’s own food, it was very difficult to
make a living and survive. Between 1845 and 1851, over one million people perished in Ireland,
which was about an eighth of the population in that period of time. Another five million, in the
hope of escaping the terrible starving conditions of their homeland, abandoned Ireland over the
next 60 years, emigrating to other countries.
The resulting mass emigration from Ireland irrevocably changed the demographics of
Ireland and those of the countries that were emigrated to. England received many new paupers
and beggars onto her streets, and the English were not very pleased about this. The Irish,
however, were living much better than they were back in their homeland; the work houses in
England were far better than the ones back home in Ireland, as they provided them with 3 meals
as opposed to the 2 that they were accustomed to, and it included meat. There was much strife
between the two groups, and there were eventually riots between them. A similar change
occurred in the United States. A large number of Irish emigrants flooded the United States
because they had heard that it was a rich ‘Promised Land’, and that it was free from British
control. They primarily settled in New York and Chicago, and established very large
communities there. At first, they were still very poor and many resorted to crime to support
themselves. They garnered a negative reputation which contributed to their difficulty in finding
work. After several decades, the Irish gradually filtered out of the slums and into other parts of
the city. This was partly due to the greater demand for construction work, which the Irish
gratefully fulfilled, and partly due to the fact that politicians had finally realized that there was a
very sizable portion of the population that they could not ignore any longer. With stable jobs and
an active voice in politics, the Irish in the United States finally began to recover from the tragedy
of the Great Famine of their homeland.
Originally, potatoes possessed the reputation of being healthy, nutritious, and relatively
easy to farm and harvest. While they may still be easy to farm, the potato’s reputation as a
healthy and nutritious food staple has long since been forgotten. Recently, potato foods and
products are notorious for having unhealthy effects on the population, most notably in America
and parts of Western Europe. This is due to the preparation process and additives used in adding
flavor to these newer potato products. Over half of the nutrients are removed when the potato is
peeled and cooked, and any fats or other seasonings that are added only further lower the
nutritional value of the final product. Unfortunately, these types of products, such as French-fries
and potato chips, are products that are eaten at an incredibly high rate of consumption by
children and adolescents. It is estimated that a quarter of all vegetables consumed by American
children, and one-third for American teenagers, are of the unhealthy forms of French-fries or
chips. In addition to the extreme unhealthy attributes of these products, they are also readily
accessible in almost every location, and are sold inexpensively. All of these factors together are
facilitating the growing problem of obesity in the world, particularly in Western countries.
The potato was widely accepted into the European diet, at first predominantly by the
lower classes, because it was a great source of nutrition, in addition to it being relatively easy to
farm and harvest. It greatly changed the lives of the lower and working classes for the better.
Through the horrific famine that it wrought, the potato taught humanity to not rely on any single
type of product, because it allows for a single problem that can affect any of the product to affect
all of the product. In addition, widespread reliance on the singular product ensures that many
locations and peoples will be affected in turn. The blight also set a prime example for how other
countries should contribute to helping nations that are in need of aid. The British aid programs
during the Great Famine provided only minimal help in the long run and did not solve any of the
problems facing the country. As a result of the famine directly caused by the potato, Irish
emigrants have forever changed the demographics of the countries that they fled to. The culture,
traditions, religion, and foods of the Irish have become a part of America’s melting pot society
and will continue to influence the country in the future. In addition to the historical effects of the
potato, the chemically enhanced varieties of potato products have very little nutritional value and
are actually heavily contributing to the rising rate of obesity in the world, and in children in
children most of all. It is astounding how something so small and seemingly harmless could
cause so much trouble.
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