Potato: historically important vegetable

Ubiquitous: Potato is the most produced and consumed vegetable in the world.

Ubiquitous: Potato is the most produced and consumed vegetable in the world.   | Photo Credit: — Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Every so often, world agencies announce and dedicate an entire year towards some noble cause or the other.

This year is focused on an unusual, but delectable topic, the potato. 2008 is being recognized and celebrated as the International Year of the Potato.

Indeed, no other vegetable has been elevated to such a pedestal. Why? Because it is the most produced and consumed vegetable across the world.

Potato is big. Last year alone, 320 million tons of potatoes were harvested across the world. That translates to about 34 kilos per person on earth.

Each one of us had 93 grams of potato to be had per day (though most Indians had no more than 60; the Europeans eat up 300 g/per day). Clearly, potato ranks as a staple food item, close to rice and wheat.

And no surprise — China, the world’s most populous nation is also the world’s biggest potato producer, the Russian Federation comes next with 37 million tons, and we are number three with 26 million tons in 2007.

It is not for nothing that we have had a Central Potato Research Institute at Shimla, since 1935, just as we have other institutes for rice, sorghum, cotton and so forth. India aims to double its potato production next year. Potato is thus big, in more ways than one.

Why the focus

Why this focus on the ‘lowly’ potato? Because potatoes feed the hungry. It is suited to be farmed where land is limited, labour abundant and climate not so conducive. Up to 85 per cent of the plant is edible; compare this with 50 per cent in cereals.

Contrary to common opinion, potatoes are nutritious and good for you. They are packed with energy and that is not just carbohydrates. They have the highest protein content among the tubers, and are rich in vitamin C and in potassium.

The Andeans of Peru and Bolivia seem to have known this over 8000 years ago whey they started cultivating the potato. The Inca Indians there figured out how to grow impressive yields of potatoes under the most unsupportive conditions.

On the hills there, the microclimate and soil conditions change remarkably from ridge to ridge and terrace to terrace. This led them, over the centuries, to cultivate not one, not dozens, but hundreds of varieties of the tuber.

It is this genetic diversity that made the potato a success story the world over.

The Spanish Conquistadors who went to loot gold from Mexico and much of Latin America also brought back shiploads of varieties of this remarkable plant and its spuds to Europe in the 16th century. And in turn, the Europeans brought the potato to India, along with many other plants and fruits.

The Dutch connection

The late Dr K. T. Achaya writes in his ‘A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food’ that potatoes in India were first accepted only by Europeans, and then by the Muslims. And when the Dutch came to India, they introduced the culture of potatoes, and from them the British received various kinds of potatoes.

The first potato farms were on the terraced slopes of Dehra Dun (a la Andean) around 1830, but within a short while methods were found to cultivate the potato in the plains.

Remarkably, quite in contrast to cabbage, cauliflower and beet, even orthodox Hindus had no qualms about letting the potato into their kitchen. Potato is thus the prime example of the inclusiveness of Indian culture.

The potato also teaches us the importance of genetic diversity and how monoculture can be disastrous.

In the mid 19th century, when rapacious landlords from England captured most of the land in Ireland, the native Irish poor had to rely on the potato for feeding themselves.It was called the Breadroot.

Millions of impoverished and disempowered Irish had to depend just on the potato for subsistence.

Then came the fungus that infected the potato, blackened the tubers and turned them overnight into evil-smelling slime.

In three successive years, all the potato in Ireland was demolished by the ‘great potato blight’ and killed millions of poor, destitute Irish. Contemporary accounts read like visions from Hell “People ate weeds, ate pets, ate human flesh. The roads are beset with tattered skeletons. God help the people”.

Within a decade, Ireland’s population was halved. Many of the remaining set sail to America (including the forebears of J. F. Kennedy).

All this because of monoculture. As Michael Pollan writes in ‘The Botany of Desire’ (from where I quote the above sentences), this blight did not, and could not, befall the Andeans because they cultivated not one but dozens of potato varieties, many of which were immune to the pathogen.

Lesson learnt

It is this lesson that we have learnt in India too — where we do not grow just the single set that companies like McDonald’s want.

The Central Potato Research Institute at Shimla and its 7 Regional centres have a germplasm bank of 1,200 potato varieties, and have produced 40 high yielding ones, and has also a blight forecast system.

India is part of the global group that is sequencing the genome of the potato, which has 12 chromosomes and 840 million alphabets in its DNA sequence.

This grand project, centred in the Netherlands would make it easy to identify genes in the native and wild species of potato, which comes in 5,000 varieties.


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