On Potatoes

March 1, 2012

When I had gone to England in 2004 (as depicted in the previous post), I had had a solid English breakfast at The Cat Tavern (which of course included hash browns) before I left for Stonehenge and then saw an episode of Hustle on BBC upon returning back to Salisbury.  I never did end up watching more episodes of that entertaining show, but recently I’ve been watching the American version Leverage.  Thanks for getting me into it.

So one recent episode that I saw was “The Hot Potato Job” that centered around the theft of a genetically-engineered potato that “has extra nutrients inside,” in particular Vitamin A.  As you know, I’ve had some past interest in food products that are genetically engineered to have additional properties. In particular, I helped advise the MIT iGEM team in engineering the yogurt bacterium Lactobacillus bulgaricus to secrete the peptide p1025 which helps prevent dental carries (cavities).  The goal of team biogurt was to create a sustainable method for delivering this peptide, which the method of home yogurt production inherently provides.  Interestingly as noted in a remarkable paper by Nunn and Qian:

Humans can have healthy diets from consuming potatoes, supplemented with only dairy, which contain the two vitamins not provided for by potatoes, vitamins A and D (Dairy is not actually necessary for vitamin D because humans produce it after absorbing sunlight).

Thus, the Leverage super-tuber with vitamin A is all that would be needed to have a (nutritionally) healthy life.  If this is paired with biogurt, then one will be set both nutritionally and have good teeth.  If some wheat is also thrown in, I argue one can have a psychologically fulfilling life as well, cf. The Kush Show presents Everyday Indian.

Given its ubiquity and presence e.g. in the phalahar diet, it may seem as though the potato has been around everywhere for all time, but it only came to the Old World during the Columbian Exchange.  The etymology of the English word potato is actually rather interesting and its possible influence on the spelling of the word tomato even more interesting.  Anyway, coming back to the main part of the Nunn and Qian paper:

According to our most conservative estimates, the introduction of the potato accounts for approximately one-quarter of the growth in Old World population and urbanization between 1700 and 1900.

Isn’t that astounding?  Much more impact than any technology I can think of at the moment.  Moreover, they say that “the introduction of the potato increased average adult heights by approximately one-half inch.” 

How quickly did the potato spread once it came to Europe?  Nunn and Qian, say, for example:

The potato first reached India not long after it arrived in Europe, introduced by either the British or the Portuguese. The earliest known reference to potato cultivation in India is a written account from the 1670s by John Fryer.  By the late eighteenth century there are various accounts of widespread cultivation in many parts of India.

They were not able to do a detailed micro-level study of the spread of this agricultural technology, but it was rather quick.  I would imagine that social learning played a key role, just like with pineapples in Africa.  I wonder what would have happened had there been an information technology like Digital Green in the 16th and 17th centuries.  I don’t suppose it could have spread much faster than another new world import, syphilis (which reached reached Hungary and Russia by 1497; Africa, the Middle East, and India by 1498; China by 1505; Australia by 1515; and Japan by 1569), could it?

This other paper by Nunn and Qian I have been linking to has a great discussion of other aspects of the Columbian Exchange.  With food, there are nice discussions on chili peppers, tomatoes, chocolate, and vanilla.

The world really was a different place in 1491.



  1. I have been looking for something to read on the history of the spread of foodstuffs after the Columbian Exchange. Thanks for this!

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