The Prominent Potato

How the Spud Changed Society

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Picture Source: vector stock.com

COLLIN CALLAWAY, Web Editor

This Thanksgiving, lots of people gathered and had a feast. They probably had turkey, cranberries, and potatoes. Potatoes, you may have realized, are eaten everywhere. Mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, hash browns, even french fries – none of these would be possible without the famous tater. And yet, you probably never thought about a potato and where it came from. Well, the history of the potato may surprise you.

According to Smithsonianmag.com, the potato is the fifth most important crop worldwide, behind wheat, corn, rice and sugarcane. Potato plants have flowers when they bloom. Marie Antoinnette liked the flowers so much that she put some in her hair and her husband, Louis XVI, put one in his buttonhole. This started a trend in France of people using potatoes as fashion pieces.

The potato was initially imported to Europe by Spanish explorers from the New World. It is even argued that the potato contributed to the end of the European famine. It fed people across Europe and, in turn, let those groups exert dominion over the others. The potato helped fuel the innovation of technology in Europe and the West.

The potato rose to great importance; and then it met its first adversary, the Colorado Potato Beetle. This led to farmers creating the first form of pesticide, a form of arsenic. Competition to find the best version of this pesticide led to the beginning of the modern pesticide industry.

Although the potato was extremely influential in Europe, it began in an unexpected place. The Andes, a mountain range on the west coast of South America, was the first place the potato was cultivated and used as food. The Incas, one of the biggest civilizations in that area at the time, built their great empire with lots of potatoes. The Spanish conquistadors that destroyed the Incas would then bring the potato back to Europe.

Like many other plants, the potato used to be poisonous. The Incas, as well as many other tribes, used a mixture of clay and water to eliminate the toxins from the potato. Eventually the toxins were bred from the potato. Though poisonous potatoes do exist in South America, they are accompanied by a version of the clay and water mixture for safety.

From 1500 to 1800, Europe would have an unbelievable amount of famines. They were estimated to have more than one every single decade. That is said to be an underestimate because it doesn’t account for local famines. Needless to say, Europe did not have enough food to feed all of its people. Thanks to Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, Inspector-General of Health Service under Napoleon, the potato became a widespread staple, ending famines for the most part. Because of the potato, Europe was able to double its food production. Finally, Europe could feed its rapidly growing population.