Today, on St. Patrick’s Day, I thought we’d take a break from the urgent headlines and talk about something much simpler…
The lowly potato.
Of course, to this day, we strongly associate this tuber vegetable with Ireland. And like the Irish, the potato has an amazing ability to adapt and thrive to challenging, new environments around the world.
In fact, some plant scientists believe it could play a major role in feeding the world’s poorest populations in the 21st century. But only if they can find a way to protect its biological diversity.
Let me explain, starting with some history…
The potato as a cheap, reliable food source
The Inca first started growing potatoes as a food crop about 7,000 years ago on the shores of Lake Titicaca, located between modern-day Bolivia and Peru. Then, starting in the 1500s, early explorers to the Americas “discovered” the crop, which is part of the Solanaceae family of plants, and took it with them around the world…and eventually back to Europe.
But it wasn’t until the late 16th century that the potato gained wider acceptance as a food source in Europe, since most Europeans associated it with the “deadly nightshade”—another plant in the Solanaceae family.
Then, during the French Revolution, the hardy, inexpensive vegetable saved many French people (and French soldiers) from starvation. And ever since, people around the world—and on every continent except Antarctica—have been cultivating and enjoying potatoes as a dietary staple.
But this world domination came at a heavy price…
The ever-shrinking variety of potatoes poses a real problem
Large-scale, commercial farming of the most commonly consumed types of potatoes—such as Idaho, russet, and red—has resulted in one major, unfortunate problem…
It’s severely reduced the variety of potatoes grown around the world. In fact, experts estimate that about 75 percent of the potato’s diversity was lost during the 20th century.
But modern scientists and agronomists are seeking to protect the diversity of the potato—with the help of the indigenous farming families still growing potatoes in the Andes.
In fact, the Quechua descents of the ancient Inca continue to grow a wide variety of potatoes in the southern Andes of Peru. These locally grown potatoes still come in a variety of different textures and colors, including red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, and even white, ringed with shocking pink on the internal cross-section. Their textures range from hard, firm, and waxy to powdery. Some taste much too bitter to eat. So, locals soak them, freeze-dry them outdoors, and then trample them to separate the outer skin.
Scientists are now testing how these native potatoes stand up to harsh weather conditions and bugs in an agricultural preserve called “Potato Park” in Cuzco, Peru. They’re also trying to mix the native potatoes with an undomesticated “grandfather” of the potato, which looks more like a tomato than a potato.
The scientists hope that planting native potatoes alongside these “grandfather” potatoes will help create a new, resilient, hybrid potato that can withstand severe weather conditions, drought, and bug infestation. And perhaps one day, the new hybrid could prove useful in Africa and Asia, where many populations of people continue to rely on potatoes to survive droughts.
So, tonight, I hope you enjoy a traditional St. Patrick’s Day dinner—with potatoes—and consider for a moment how much there really is to this common, “simple,” staple food.
Just remember, most of the nutrients are packed in their skins. So, enjoy this starchy food—in moderation—with skins on!
P.S. Potatoes provide a variety of culinary possibilities, as I explained more thoroughly in the March 2019 issue of my monthly newsletter, Insiders’ Cures (“No blarney here!”). I even disclose one of my favorite recipes! So if you haven’t already, consider signing up today. Click here now!
“How Peru’s potato museum could stave off world food crisis.” The Guardian, 11/29/19. (theguardian.com/environment/2019/nov/29/how-perus-potato-museum-could-stave-off-world-food-crisis)