Surely you’ve heard that 2008 is the year of a presidential election here in the United States, as well as the year of the Summer Olympics in Beijing. Personally, I hope that 2008 will be a good one for the St. Louis Cardinals, whose season gets started on Monday.
This is also the International Year of the Potato, according to a decree by the United Nations. In 2008, the UN wants “to increase awareness of the importance of the potato as a food in developing nations.”
It’s the world’s fourth-most-important crop, after corn, wheat, and rice. The French call it the “ground apple” and my farming friends in Sweden call it an “earth pear”—succulent names for a blue-collar root vegetable that is one of agriculture’s great workhorses. “The potato produces more nutritious food more quickly, on less land, and in harsher climates than any other major crop,” says a UN website.
The potato is grown all over the world, with about half of its harvest taking place in developing countries. It’s rich in calories, making it an excellent source of energy—especially in nations that are more concerned about malnutrition than the low-carb Atkins diet. Finally, demand for it is growing.
So the potato looks to have a bright future. But it also has a rich past, and it has played a crucial role in economics, trade, and globalization.
The plant is native to South America, where farmers have grown it for thousands of years. The earliest potatoes, according to the Oxford Companion to Food, were “small, misshapen, and knobbly” and tasted bitter. Through breeding (genetic changes), they became bigger, rounder, and more appetizing.
The European encounter with the New World began the potato’s process of globalization. In the 16th century, farmers in Spain and Italy planted their first potatoes. Then the crop spread everywhere. Its advantages were significant enough to overcome occasional religious objections, based on the concern that the potato isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Bible. The Irish came up with a clever solution to this problem: They sprinkled holy water on their seed potatoes and planted them on Good Friday.
Because potatoes are packed with calories and easy to grow, their cultivation in Europe made it possible for large numbers of people to move from farms to cities. They “liberated workers from the land,” writes The Economist, and thereby planted the seeds for the industrial revolution.
Potatoes also fueled international trade, in a completely unexpected way. In the early 19th century, Britain imposed hefty tariffs known as the Corn Laws. Their purpose was to shield domestic agriculture from foreign competition. The result was to keep food prices artificially high, which helped rich landowners but frustrated uppity manufacturers who wanted British consumers to enjoy more disposable income. That’s always the price of protectionism: More money for special interests, and less cash for ordinary people.
It took the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s to repeal the Corn Laws. Sir Robert Peel, the Conservative prime minister, called for their abolition so that the starving people of Ireland could have something to eat. Peel’s moral argument prevailed, though this success soon cost him his political career.
Growing potatoes may be relatively ‘easy’ but breeding a healthier and stronger potato that has consumer benefits like antioxidants, enhanced vitamins (C, A and E) and improved starch content is difficult and a long, slow process using traditional breeding. That’s just how the potato works. Today, researchers are using intragenics – using biotechnology to introduce new traits from other potato varieties – to produce potatoes with these added-value attributes.
Modern agricultural practices make the appearance of a new potato famine unlikely. Even so, the potato finds itself at the center of a new controversy in Europe, where farmers would like a special GM variety approved for use. The potato in question isn’t even grown for food. Instead, it generates a starch that’s an industrial ingredient for glossy paper, adhesive cement, and other products.
The EU’s unnecessary restrictions on GM crops are the Corn Laws of our time, especially because they’re holding back poor nations in Africa and elsewhere from adopting advanced agricultural practices. Europe could hardly choose a better time or rationale than the International Year of the Potato for rethinking its small-minded opposition to sensible biotechnology.
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org