History

 

The potato originated in the high Andean mountains (3800 m above sea level), near Lake Titicaca on the border between Peru and Bolivia. This is where the Incas cultivated the potato as their staple food. The harsh environment included drought, extreme daily temperatures and frost.

 

After harvesting their potatoes, the Incas freeze-dried them into Chuño. In this way, potatoes could be stored indefinitely. The Incas added water and then boiled the Chuño before eating. It was an excellent insurance against famine. More importantly, the potato was an exceptional source of nearly all the vital nutrients, especially vitamin C, protein and minerals. It also provided an ideal source of energy.

Spanish explorers brought the potato to Southern Europe by 1570. Unfortunately, the potatoes planted in Europe produced foliage and flowers but very small tubers because of the long day summer conditions. In their own creative way, botanists started taking the seeds from the berries produced by the pollination of the flowers on potato plants, and sowing those seeds. Gradually they selected for clones that could tuberize under long day conditions. This process resulted in potato varieties that were able to tuberize well under the long summer days of Europe, which contrasts sharply with the 12 hour days in the potatoes’ home country of Peru.

 

Potatoes were popular, spreading rapidly throughout Europe during the 1600s and early 1700s. Scholars and botanists were curious about the edible plant, and they began to study and experiment with growing potatoes. At first, monasteries used potatoes as a cheap source of food; soon, the plant was spread throughout Europe by Protestants who were moving about because of religious persecution. By the late 1700s, the potato was grown nearly everywhere in Europe. For the amount of land they need, potatoes yield an incredible amount of food. This adequate food source led to a rapid increase in Europe’s population. The good nutrition of the potato allowed people to be healthier, even lowering the mortality rate. By 1815, potatoes were the staple food for most Europeans.

 

From 1620, the potato spread to the USA and Canada, India and other parts of Asia and the Pacific as well as to Africa. The European colonial powers were instrumental in disseminating the potato to their colonies.

 

Unfortunately, the large area under cultivation had come from a narrow genetic base. Most of the varieties probably originated from self-pollinated berries selected by the botanists in Spain right after 1570.

 

The famous Irish potato famine of 1845 – 1846 was caused by late blight (Phytophthora Infestans). The disease came from Mexico via the USA in the form of infected tubers carried by boat passengers. Late blight first affected potatoes in Canada and the USA in 1844. One year later, the disease partially destroyed Ireland’s potato crop, and completely wiped it out in 1846 and in subsequent years. The rapid spread of late blight was in part due to the narrow genetic base of the few varieties that were grown.

A Global Crop

 

Today, the potato is grown in more than 130 countries. During the last 40 years, potato production has gradually declined by 40% in Europe and North America, whereas in the developing world potato production has increased over three-fold, now surpassing the total production of the developed world.

 

The biggest potato producer in the world is China, with over 75 million metric tonnes grown each year — almost 25% of the world total. Russian is second, followed by India, the USA and the Ukraine. Today, the potato is the third-ranked food crop in the world, with only rice and wheat being more prevalent.

The Potato Today

 

Potato production has become a highly specialized business. In Canada, potato farming is now focused on either French fry, chipping, table or seed potato production. Generally, a potato farmer will only do one of the four categories, although the last two categories allow for some overlap.

 

The market demand for each type of production is sophisticated, with specific varieties, equipment and storage facilities required. For our business of growing chipping potatoes, we have specific varieties that can only be grown for this purpose; we need sandy soils that help to avoid potato bruising at harvest and a warm micro-climate to help the crop mature by early September to avoid high levels of released sugars. Our storage is designed to provide a high level of air through the ventilation systems to permit the tubers to have adequate levels of oxygen and to be kept at a constant temperature through the long storage season.

 

The processing industries now utilize a large part of the potato acreage in Canada. The table potato industry has also become more specialized, with at least six categories of potatoes sold: round white, red, yellow, russet, organic and small potatoes. Often, farmers will specialize by growing only a few of these categories.

The Excellent Nutritional Quality of the Potato

 

Contrary to what some believe, the potato is almost a perfect food. On a fresh weight basis, it is 2% protein. No crop produces more protein per acre than potatoes! This protein is a good mix of essential amino acids. Potatoes are also rich in minerals, including Calcium, Iron and Magnesium, as well as being replete with Vitamin C. The potato probably helped the Spanish sailors prevent developing scurvy during the long ocean voyages from Peru to Spain.

 

The potato also provides an excellent supply of energy and fibre (find out more about potatoes as a healthy choice here). The fact that the Irish lived on potatoes and a little milk is a testimony to the nutritional value of this plant.

The potato gets negative publicity today from the condiments added during preparation, such as butter, sour cream, or oil in the case of fried potatoes. Companies are working toward reducing the use of oil in frying and developing cholesterol-free oils so that we can all continue to enjoy potatoes.

 

Resources

 

Ontario Potato Board