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Although the potato is now associated with industrial-scale monoculture, the International Potato Center in Peru has preserved almost 5,000 varieties. (Martin Mejia / AP Images)

How the Potato Changed the World

Brought to Europe from the New World by Spanish explorers, the lowly potato gave rise to modern industrial agriculture

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When potato plants bloom, they send up five-lobed flowers that spangle fields like fat purple stars. By some accounts, Marie Antoinette liked the blossoms so much that she put them in her hair. Her husband, Louis XVI, put one in his buttonhole, inspiring a brief vogue in which the French aristocracy swanned around with potato plants on their clothes. The flowers were part of an attempt to persuade French farmers to plant and French diners to eat this strange new species.

Today the potato is the fifth most important crop worldwide, after wheat, corn, rice and sugar cane. But in the 18th century the tuber was a startling novelty, frightening to some, bewildering to others—part of a global ecological convulsion set off by Christopher Columbus.

About 250 million years ago, the world consisted of a single giant landmass now known as Pangaea. Geological forces broke Pangaea apart, creating the continents and hemispheres familiar today. Over the eons, the separate corners of the earth developed wildly different suites of plants and animals. Columbus’ voyages reknit the seams of Pangaea, to borrow a phrase from Alfred W. Crosby, the historian who first described this process. In what Crosby called the Columbian Exchange, the world’s long-separate ecosystems abruptly collided and mixed in a biological bedlam that underlies much of the history we learn in school. The potato flower in Louis XVI’s buttonhole, a species that had crossed the Atlantic from Peru, was both an emblem of the Columbian Exchange and one of its most important aspects.

Compared with grains, tubers are inherently more productive. If the head of a wheat or rice plant grows too big, the plant will fall over, with fatal results. Growing underground, tubers are not limited by the rest of the plant. In 2008 a Lebanese farmer dug up a potato that weighed nearly 25 pounds. It was bigger than his head.

Many researchers believe that the potato’s arrival in northern Europe spelled an end to famine there. (Corn, another American crop, played a similar but smaller role in southern Europe.) 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, fueled the rise of the West.

Equally important, the European and North American adoption of the potato set the template for modern agriculture—the so-called agro-industrial complex. Not only did the Columbian Exchange carry the potato across the Atlantic, it also brought the world’s first intensive fertilizer: Peruvian guano. And when potatoes fell to the attack of another import, the Colorado potato beetle, panicked farmers turned to the first artificial pesticide: a form of arsenic. Competition to produce ever-more-potent arsenic blends launched the modern pesticide industry. In the 1940s and 1950s, improved crops, high-intensity fertilizers and chemical pesticides created the Green Revolution, the explosion of agricultural productivity that transformed farms from Illinois to Indonesia—and set off a political argument about the food supply that grows more intense by the day.

In 1853 an Alsatian sculptor named Andreas Friederich erected a statue of Sir Francis Drake in Offenburg, in southwest Germany. It portrayed the English explorer staring into the horizon in familiar visionary fashion. His right hand rested on the hilt of his sword. His left gripped a potato plant. “Sir Francis Drake,” the base proclaimed,

disseminator of the potato in Europe
in the Year of Our Lord 1586.
Millions of people
who cultivate the earth
bless his immortal memory.

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