While many edible crops appeared at the dawn of modern human civilization and spread throughout the globe, few of them managed to stand out because they are durable, stable, and have a high nutritional value. The potato is an indigenous flowering plant from South America and the Andes Mountains (modern-day south Peru and northwestern Bolivia). Its usefulness was proven to our ancestors who nurtured and cultivated it over the past 10,000 years. They are a major part of North American and European cuisines, and they are the fourth-largest food crop worldwide (behind maize, wheat, and rice). We now have access, thanks to centuries of selective breeding and extensive research, to more than a thousand varieties of potatoes from all over the world.
The history of potatoes began around 350 million years ago. They evolved from the nightshade plant’s poisonous ancestor. Later, this family of plants developed into bell peppers, tobacco, and tomatoes. The South American Andean highlands, between Peru and Bolivia, are where the potato slowly evolved to its current form. Around 15 thousand years ago, human settlers arrived in this part of the world and were able to domesticate wild potatoes around 8 millennia BC. The potato’s journey across the continent was slow from that point. However, it gained attention in the 1500s, when the first Spanish conquistadors began to explore beyond the coasts. This was especially true after the 1530s when they were searching for gold in Peru. The potato was one of their many discoveries. They brought it to Europe between 1570 and 1593 (the Canary Islands got it in 1562).
The European adoption of potatoes has been slow but steady. The Spanish government began using a potato to transport their navy and military. They did not succumb while they were there. The potato arrived in Britain in 1585. It was also brought to Germany and Belgium in 1587. Austria came in 1588. Ireland arrived in 1589, France in 1600, and Belgium in 1587. The famous French botanist and chemist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier spent a long time studying the potato. He convinced King of France Louis XVI (1754-1793) to allow mass cultivation by tricking the people. King granted Parmentier money and land to plant 100 acres of potatoes. These were closely guarded by military personnel. The attention given by the government and military to protect these potatoes immediately attracted the people’s attention. The potato became a popular food source in Europe. Marie Antoinette’s wife (1755-1793) also contributed by pining potato flowers in the curls of her hair. This was quickly copied by noble women across Europe.
The potato was a popular crop in Europe by the 1800s. However, this popularity was severely tested when disease decimated entire Irish potato production between 1845-1849. Around one million people starved during the “Great Starvation”, which caused large numbers of people to flee Ireland (500 000 left for North America or Australia).
The United States of America was the last country to adopt potatoes as a mainstay in its cuisine. They used this crop to feed horses and other animals for many years. The American potato industry gained some momentum only after Luther Burbank (1849-1926), a famous horticulturist, made 1872 efforts. Burbank’s discovery and use of a disease-resistant potato hybrid in Ireland was key to this success.
The 20th century saw the potato become a beloved food source and a staple crop in Europe. Because of their high caloric content and variety, potatoes can be found in all cuisines around the globe. The world’s potato production reached a staggering 324 million tonnes in 2010. This includes 36.6 million in China, 21.1 million in Ukraine, 36.6 million in India, and 21.1 in the United States. 10.2 in Germany.