The tuber that colonised the world

The UN is celebrating 2008 as the International Year of the Potato because no other crop has been as globalised as potato

Prasenjit Chowdhary Kolkata

Before we start expatiating on a phenomenal crop, a memorial is in order for those 25,000 farmers of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala who have committed suicide since 1997. Cotton farmers have been hit the hardest, but spice, potato and onion growers have also been buffeted by the phenomenon. In West Bengal, because of overproduction, potato farmers have been found to commit suicide as the market price of potato collapsed below the cost of production. In March this year, a debt-ridden sharecropper, Lalan Mullick Sheikh, of Someshpur village in Burdwan district was found dead near his 1.5-acre land. He had taken Rs 15,000 from a moneylender six months ago and found it impossible to repay. Madhusudan Nandy, another potato grower in Bishnupur, Bankura district, consumed pesticide following a potato glut.
Invariably at harvest time, when there is a glut, prices crash. Small and marginal farmers do not have the resources to hire storage space and obtain a better price in the future. Distress sale further erodes a farmer's financial viability. Potato farmers and traders have questioned the government's rationale behind banning futures trading in the crop.
If you clock to the cultivation history of the potato, back when the ancient Peruvians first cultivated it 4,000 years ago, the crop was a smashing success. Andean farmers grew close to 3,000 different types of potatoes, some at altitudes as high as 14,000 feet, and their freeze-dried chuños are still an important part of Andean fare. Peru's Incas used potatoes to measure time, based on how long they took to cook. And in 1995, the potato becomes the first vegetable to develop in space - on the space shuttle Columbia as commercial farmers planted the first US crop of NewLeaf, a bioengineered potato designed to produce a natural pesticide against the Colorado potato beetle.
The poor farmers who till our soil and feed us, particularly those who cultivate potato, perhaps do not know that the long-neglected hardy cash-crop is being celebrated. The United Nations is celebrating 2008 as the International Year of the Potato (IYP). In order to evaluate the results of IYP 2008, the 2009 World potato Congress has been envisaged in Christchurch, New Zealand in March next year. Hosted by the Potato Product Group of Horticulture New Zealand, this is the first time the Congress will be held in the South Pacific in which more than 500 delegates from developing and developed countries, including growers, producers, traders, processors and manufacturers, would participate. "Potato Europe 2008" will be held in Villers-Saint-Christophe on a 100-acre site in Aisne, France from September 10 - 11, 2008. It would feature over 200 exhibitors focusing the historical odyssey of potato from infamy to subsistence. A working conference to celebrate the IYP was held on 25-28 March this year in Cuzco, Peru, the centre of domestication and diversity of the potato. In India, the Central Potato Research Institute (CPRI) in Shimla has big plans for IYP, with a Global Potato Conference slated to be held in Delhi in December this year alongside radio and TV broadcasts and potato awareness programmes for farmers. The British Potato Council has pledged its support to IYP and is planning a series of activities to celebrate this unique event.
The dust-ridden potato has revolutionised Western civilisation as much as the car and the railway - it has been a fast food and a hedge against famine. If one traces four centuries of social, economic and political history of potato, one gets a consuming slice of history. Keeping in mind the unique historical significance of potato, the world's first museum about the potato was opened in 1975 in Brussels, Belgium, that features the planet's largest collection, exploring and showcasing the tuber's "fascinating past, controversial present and promising future."
Once grown only in parts of South America, the potato has become the most common food around the world. Its journey is the ultimate tale of the most comprehensive colonisation and globalisation. As a ready and resilient food-supply, the potato allowed populations to increase, people to move away from subsistence economy and industry to take off. However, over-reliance on the potato brought its own peril as seen in the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840's. The "Great Famine" of Ireland (1845-1849), also called the "Great Starvation", was caused because the potato became infected by the potato blight fungus, phytophthora infestans. At the height of the famine, at least one million men, women and children died of starvation and it caused another million to flee the country, to America.
How the potato has been the arbiter of national economies is historically quite interesting. Had the Athenians discovered the potato, they might have withstood the Spartan invasion longer during the Peloponnesian War. The War of Bavarian Succession (1778-1779) was nicknamed the "Potato War" because both the Austrians and Prussians, unable to gain victory, took to destroying each others' crops, mainly potatoes. The fighting ended when both sides ran out of the staple.
The story of the diffusion of the potato is as interesting as it is tragic. The Spanish conquest of Peru between 1532 and 1572 decimated the Inca civilization and caused the deaths - from war, disease and despair - of at least half the population. As part of the loot, the conquistadors, though they came in quest of gold, returned to Europe with Solanum tuberosum. The first evidence of potato growing in Europe dates from 1565, on Spain's Canary Islands. By 1573, potato was cultivated on the Spanish mainland. Soon, tubers were being sent around Europe as exotic gifts - from the Spanish court to the Pope in Rome, from Rome to the papal ambassador in Mons, and from there to a botanist in Vienna. Potatoes were grown in London in 1597 and reached France and the Netherlands soon after. With the colonising spree of Europe, fondly called its "Age of Discovery," European sailors took tubers to consume on ocean voyages and that is how it is thought that the potato reached India, China and Japan early in the 17th century. Most likely aboard ships from Portugal, the potato reached India in the late 16th century and early 17th centuries. Another theory holds that potatoes in India were promoted by the British, starting with Warren Hastings who received some as a gift in 1780, and may have encouraged its cultivation in Bengal. Initially in Europe, wherever the potato was introduced, it was considered poisonous and evil. In France and elsewhere, the potato was accused of causing not only leprosy, but also syphilis, narcosis, scronfula, early death, sterility and rampant sexuality, and of destroying the soil where it grew.
The potato became Europe's food reserve during the Napoleonic wars, and by 1815 it had become a staple crop across northern Europe. By then, the Industrial Revolution was transforming agrarian society in the UK, dislocating millions of rural people into crowded cities. In 1767, George Washington planted potatoes at Mount Vernon, and nearly 40 years later, Thomas Jefferson was the first president to serve French fries at the White House. In the new urban environment, the potato became the first modern "convenience food" - energy-rich, nutritious, easy to grow on small plots, cheap, and ready to cook without expensive processing.
The potato has been envisaged as the key to providing food security. Over the next two decades, the world's population is expected to grow on average by more than 100 million people a year. More than 95 per cent of that increase will occur in developing countries, where pressure on land and water is already intense. Potato is vital to the food security of hundreds of millions of people in the developing world. Almost 213 million tonnes of potato are grown to eat every year, making it the third most important food crop in the world. Potato is the handiest for the international community to ensure food security for present and future generations, while protecting the natural resource base on which we all depend.
Why so? The potato produces more nutrition more quickly, on less land, and in harsher climates than any other major crop - up to 85 per cent of the plant is edible human food, compared to around 50 per cent in cereals. Rich in carbohydrates, potato is a source of high energy. It has the highest protein content in the family of root and tuber crops, and protein of a fairly high quality, with an amino-acid pattern that is well matched to human requirements. The "biological value" of potato protein (an index of the nitrogen absorbed from a food and retained by the body for growth and maintenance) is 73, second only to eggs at 96; just ahead of soybeans at 72, but far superior to corn (maize) at 54 and wheat at 53. Not to speak of its being rich in vitamin C (the British, in fact, used to derive 30 per cent of their vitamin C intake from potatoes), potato also contains a fifth of the recommended daily value of potassium.
Over 50 per cent of the world's potatoes are produced in developing countries, with the volume increasing, as new technology and practices are being adopted. Asia consumes almost half of the world's potato supply, but its huge population means that consumption per person was a modest 25 kg in 2005. Asia and Europe are the world's major potato producing regions, accounting for more than 80 per cent of world production in 2006. China is now the biggest producer, and almost a third of all potatoes are harvested in China and India alone. India is now the third largest producer after China and Russia, with over 26.2 million tonnes grown last year. The per capita consumption of potato in India is still as low as 15-17 kg a year, compared to a global average of 33 kg, and a European average of a weighty 120 kg per capita.
Post the diktats of the WTO and the clarion call to high productivity, farming has become a death-trap for poor farmers of India. Rising input costs, declining farm prices due to globalisation of agriculture and increasing indebtedness are the prime culprits behind the unnatural deaths. Be it crop failures, or bumper harvests, farmers have been pushed into a vicious cycle of mounting debt and distress - increasingly becoming a victim of the new emerging phenomenon of "produce and perish". Would the deliberations on potato and the hoopla around it take the plight of Indian farmers into account.