How the Humble Potato Rescued Europe From Impending Doom

CC BY 2.0. Peter Mooney -- Digging homegrown potatoes, an age-old task

When explorers brought potatoes back from the Andes, Europe was able to reverse its population decline and establish greater food security.

The potato is generally thought of as a humble tuber. It costs little in the grocery store, has a very subtle flavour, a smooth, almost boring consistency, and lacks the vibrancy of other root vegetables, like beets and carrots. But the fact is, the humble potato is a heavy hitter. According to historical researchers, the potato has played a significant role in shaping the world as we know it today.

A fascinating article in Quartzly, written by Gwynn Guilford and titled "The global dominance of white people is thanks to the potato," explains the cascade effect of its introduction to Europe. First discovered by Spanish explorers to the Incan empire in the mid-1500s, the potato was brought to Europe and quickly adopted for a number of reasons.

It yielded two to four times more calories per acre than staple grain crops and offered more vitamins and micronutrients. Guilford writes, "[Potatoes are] rich enough in vitamin C that they helped end rampant scurvy throughout the continent." Potatoes are frost-resistant and can be stored underground. They come out of the field ready to be eaten, not requiring the processing that grain needs. Extras could be fed to livestock, making meat more accessible to peasants.

The further the potato spread, the more its effects were felt. It fuelled soldiers at war, and helped peasants to survive periods of conflict. It made land more productive overall, making people less inclined to fight over it. And as the food supply became more reliable, abundant, and nutritious, the population swelled, providing "the wealth and manpower needed to fuel the Industrial Revolution."

Eventually, as the population growth became too much for Europe to support, this turned into a mass Caucasian migration from Europe to the New World. (The flip side of this is the increased reliance on the potato alone, which hurt the Irish population when blight hit its primary crop in the 1840s, killing a million people and forcing others to emigrate.)

Guilford sums it up:

"In an inversion of the potato miracle that helped make their migration possible, European immigrants thrived through growing Old World grains in their new terrain. The resulting plenty boosted birth rates to among the highest in recorded history. Through trade and imperialism, those surpluses fed and fueled Europe’s Industrial Revolution and, eventually, the industrial revolution in the US that led America to seize the mantle of Western global dominance."

I doubt I'll ever look at a potato in the same way again.