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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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“For the first time in the history of western Europe, a definitive solution had been found to the food problem,” the Belgian historian Christian Vandenbroeke concluded in the 1970s. By the end of the 18th century, potatoes had become in much of Europe what they were in the Andes—a staple. Roughly 40 percent of the Irish ate no solid food other than potatoes; the figure was between 10 percent and 30 percent in the Netherlands, Belgium, Prussia and perhaps Poland. Routine famine almost disappeared in potato country, a 2,000-mile band that stretched from Ireland in the west to Russia’s Ural Mountains in the east. At long last, the continent could produce its own dinner.

It was said that the Chincha Islands gave off a stench so intense they were difficult to approach. The Chinchas are a clutch of three dry, granitic islands 13 miles off the southern coast of Peru. Almost nothing grows on them. Their sole distinction is a population of seabirds, especially the Peruvian booby, the Peruvian pelican and the Peruvian cormorant. Attracted by the vast schools of fish along the coast, the birds have nested on the Chincha Islands for millennia. Over time they covered the islands with a layer of guano up to 150 feet thick.

Guano, the dried remains of birds’ semisolid urine, makes excellent fertilizer—a mechanism for giving plants nitrogen, which they need to make chlorophyll, the green molecule that absorbs the sun’s energy for photosynthesis. Although most of the atmosphere consists of nitrogen, the gas is made from two nitrogen atoms bonded so tightly to each other that plants cannot split them apart for use. As a result, plants seek usable nitrogen-containing compounds like ammonia and nitrates from the soil. Alas, soil bacteria constantly digest these substances, so they are always in lesser supply than farmers would like.

In 1840, the organic chemist Justus von Liebig published a pioneering treatise that explained how plants depend on nitrogen. Along the way, he extolled guano as an excellent source of it. Sophisticated farmers, many of them big landowners, raced to buy the stuff. Their yields doubled, even tripled. Fertility in a bag! Prosperity that could be bought in a store!

Guano mania took hold. In 40 years, Peru exported about 13 million tons of it, the great majority dug under ghastly working conditions by slaves from China. Journalists decried the exploitation, but the public’s outrage instead was largely focused on Peru’s guano monopoly. The British Farmer’s Magazine laid out the problem in 1854: “We do not get anything like the quantity we require; we want a great deal more; but at the same time, we want it at a lower price.” If Peru insisted on getting a lot of money for a valuable product, the only solution was invasion. Seize the guano islands! Spurred by public fury, the U.S. Congress passed the Guano Islands Act in 1856, authorizing Americans to seize any guano deposits they discovered. Over the next half-century, U.S. merchants claimed 94 islands, cays, coral heads and atolls.

From today’s perspective, the outrage—threats of legal action, whispers of war, editorials on the Guano Question—is hard to understand. But agriculture was then “the central economic activity of every nation,” as the environmental historian Shawn William Miller has pointed out. “A nation’s fertility, which was set by the soil’s natural bounds, inevitably shaped national economic success.” In just a few years, agriculture in Europe and the United States had become as dependent on high-intensity fertilizer as transportation is today on petroleum—a dependency it has not shaken since.

Guano set the template for modern agriculture. Ever since von Liebig, farmers have treated the land as a medium into which they dump bags of chemical nutrients brought in from far away so they can harvest high volumes for shipment to distant markets. To maximize crop yields, farmers plant ever-larger fields with a single crop—industrial monoculture, as it is called.

Before the potato (and corn), before intensive fertilization, European living standards were roughly equivalent to those in Cameroon and Bangladesh today. On average, European peasants ate less per day than hunting-and-gathering societies in Africa or the Amazon. Industrial monoculture allowed billions of people—in Europe first, and then in much of the rest of the world—to escape poverty. The revolution begun by potatoes, corn and guano has allowed living standards to double or triple worldwide even as human numbers climbed from fewer than one billion in 1700 to some seven billion today.

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