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In Praise of the Humble Potato

July 9, 2010


An old Irish proverb says, “It is easy to halve the potato where there is love.” The unstated assumption in that adage is that it applies to situations when food is scarce and the potato is the entire meal. Knowing Irish history, one can appreciate that poignant message. Potatoes are the world’s fourth-largest food crop, following rice, wheat, and maize. Wikipedia reports:

“Introduced to Europe by Spain in 1536, the potato was subsequently conveyed by European mariners to territories and ports throughout the world. Thousands of varieties persist in the Andes, where over 100 cultivars might be found in a single valley, and a dozen or more might be maintained by a single agricultural household. Once established in Europe, the potato soon became an important food staple and field crop. But lack of genetic diversity, due to the fact that very few varieties were initially introduced, left the crop vulnerable to disease. In 1845, a plant disease known as late blight, caused by the fungus-like oomycete Phytophthora infestans, spread rapidly through the poorer communities of western Ireland, resulting in the crop failures that led to the Great Irish Famine.”

In the U.S., potatoes are largely known as a good source of carbohydrates and for putting pounds on people when consumed in the form of french fries. As noted above, however, potatoes are an important food source for much of the world. Although there are close to 4,000 varieties of potatoes, new varieties are still being developed — sometimes creating controversy. Take, for example, a potato that is being grown in Sweden for industrial use rather than as a source of food [“A Potato Remade for Industry Has Some Swedes Frowning,” by John Tagliabue, New York Times, 10 June 2010]. The potato in question is called Amflora and, as “a result of genetic jiggling,” is “almost pure starch” and harshly flavored. Tagliabue reports:

“The potato, the first genetically engineered organism to be allowed in the European Union in more than a decade, was planted on 16 acres of land on the fringes of [Skara] in southwestern Sweden, after a quarter-century of bureaucratic wrangling. Although inedible, Amflora is a kind of miracle potato on two counts: for one, there is its starch content, which makes it precious to the starch industry, a major employer in Sweden; and then there is its feisty resilience in surviving some 25 years of tests, regulations, rules, ordinances and applications for approval by both Sweden and the European Union, of which Sweden is a member. While not grown as a food crop, the Amflora potato is giving many people in this region of rolling hills, broad lakes and small farms a bad case of indigestion. Though genetically engineered crops like corn, cotton or soybeans are common enough in the United States, they remain a rarity in Europe, where public resistance is high. The European Union takes the position that the long-term effects of genetic engineering on the environment and on plant and animal life cannot yet be known with scientific certainty, and so urges extreme circumspection. In few places is that caution as much in evidence as in Skara. … Still, the Amflora is something of the pride of Sweden.”

Tagliabue reports that Swedish farmers belonging to Lyckeby, a farmers’ cooperative, began looking for a potato with high starch content some thirty years ago. Their livelihood was based on supplying starches to companies that manufacture “paper, textile finishes, glues and other products.” Obviously, the higher the starch content of the potato the more profitable the crop. Their search inevitably led to the idea of creating a genetically-engineered variety of potato. Unfortunately for the Amflora, in 1998, the EU imposed “an indefinite moratorium on approval of genetically modified organisms and no one at Plant Science knew when it would end.” Tagliabue reports that “the moratorium was finally lifted in 2004, but it was another six years before the bureaucrats in Brussels, perhaps concerned about falling too far behind in biotech, gave the green light for planting.”


Joshua Chaffin reports on the lifting of the moratorium [“Brussels breaks ground with go-ahead for modified potato,” Financial Times, 3 March 2010]. He writes:

“A German-engineered potato yesterday became the first genetically modified organism in 12 years to win approval for cultivation in the European Union, sparking celebration among GMO manufacturers and outrage among opponents. The Amflora potato was developed by BASF, the German chemicals group, to provide high-quality starch for industrial customers, such as paper and textile manufacturers, and is unlikely to end up on consumers’ plates. Supporters and opponents said that the decision by the European Commission – after 13 years of years of bureaucratic, scientific and legal wrangling – marked the beginning of a more welcoming posture in Brussels towards the controversial products. … Even as GMOs have been embraced by the US, Canada, Brazil and other agricultural powers, Europeans have remained wary amid fears they could pose unforeseen health and environmental dangers. Before Amflora, only one other GMO had been approved for cultivation in the EU – Monsanto’s MON810 maize, in 1998 – in spite of repeated findings from the European Food Safety Authority that such products did not pose health risks.”

In addition to the Amflora, the commission also “approved a further three Monsanto GM maize types for import and processing.” Despite the headlines being made by the Amflora potato, most potatoes are raised for consumption. Wikipedia reports:

“The United Nations FAO reports that the world production of potatoes in 2008 was 314 million tonnes. The annual diet of an average global citizen in the first decade of the twenty-first century included about 33 kg (or 73 lb) of potato. However, the local importance of potato is extremely variable and rapidly changing. It remains an essential crop in Europe (especially eastern and central Europe), where per capita production is still the highest in the world, but the most rapid expansion over the past few decades has occurred in southern and eastern Asia. China is now the world’s largest potato-producing country, and nearly a third of the world’s potatoes is harvested in China and India. The geographic shift of potato production has been away from wealthier countries toward lower-income areas of the world, although the degree of PotatoYield this trend is ambiguous. In 2008, several international organizations highlighted the potato’s role in world food production, in the face of developing economic problems. They cited its potential derived from its status as a cheap and plentiful crop that grows in a wide variety of climates and locales. Due to perishability, only about 5% of the world’s potato crop is traded internationally; its minimal presence in world financial markets contributed to its stable pricing during the 2007-20008 world food price crisis. Thus, the United Nations officially declared the year 2008 as the International Year of the Potato, to raise its profile in developing nations, calling the crop a ‘hidden treasure’.”

I was surprised to learn that “China is now the world’s largest potato-producing country.” Like most people, when I think about Asia (including China) I think rice rather than potatoes. Chinese leaders, however, are depending on the potato to help lift millions of their people out of poverty [“China turns to potatoes for food security,” by Lauren Keane, Boston Globe, 18 June 2010]. Keane reports:

“In the land of rice, China is looking at an unlikely tool for maintaining growth and social harmony: the potato. The Chinese government has begun ramping up research, production, and training related to the humble spud, and hopes are high that it could help alleviate poverty and serve as a bulwark against famine. The challenge of feeding a growing nation on a shrinking supply of arable land while confronting severe water shortages has long been a major concern here. China has to feed one-fifth of the world’s population on one-tenth of its arable land, and the nation’s expanding cities are consuming farmland at breakneck speed. China estimates that by 2030, when its population is expected to level off at roughly 1.5 billion, it will need to produce an additional 100 million tons of food each year. That statistical reality could change eating habits. Potatoes need less water than rice or wheat, and they yield far more calories per acre. In regions of southern China, farmers can squeeze a round of fast-growing potatoes into their rice fields between planting seasons. In some of the poorest parts of arid northern China, potatoes are among the few crops that grow.”

In America, obesity is a bigger health concern than malnutrition, which is why potatoes have lost some of their attraction. For countries like China, however, calories matter a lot and the lowly potato is a good source of those calories as well as nutrients. According to Wikipedia:

“The potato contains vitamins and minerals, as well as an assortment of phytochemicals, such as carotenoids and polyphenols. A medium-size 150 g (5.3 oz) potato with the skin provides 27 mg of vitamin C (45% of the Daily Value (DV)), 620 mg of potassium (18% of DV), 0.2 mg vitamin B6 (10% of DV) and trace amounts of thiamin, riboflavin, folate, niacin, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, and zinc. The fiber content of a potato with skin (2 g) is equivalent to that of many whole grain breads, pastas, and cereals.”

Keane continues:

“‘Potatoes have so much potential here,’ said Xie Kaiyun, a leading potato scientist at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, a government think tank. ‘Rice, wheat, corn — we’ve gone about as far as we can go with them. But not the potato.’ Ever keen to seize opportunity, Chinese entrepreneurs are turning potatoes into forms more familiar to Chinese palates: buns, noodles, cakes. They are developing exotic varieties and have even sent seeds into orbit, saying that zero gravity makes them more nutritious and charging astronomical premiums for the seeds’ offspring back on Earth. Potatoes won’t replace rice or wheat as mainstays of Chinese cuisine anytime soon, if ever. They are eaten as side dishes, and the government has not yet named them a staple, a distinction that would mean preferential treatment in domestic markets and would carry significant cultural weight. But they are increasingly seen here as an underutilized resource.”

Keane notes that even though “China produces and consumes more potatoes than any other country,” it lags other potato-consuming populations in “per capita terms” because there are simply so many Chinese citizens. The Chinese consume about “one-third the amount of potatoes that Russians do and two-thirds the amount Americans eat.” Americans love their fries and hash browns as well as scalloped, mashed, baked, and twice-baked potatoes. I wonder whether Russian consumption of Vodka is considered part of their potato consumption statistics? Keane concludes her report by describing why the potato has great potential in China:

“The average acre of potato plants in China yields far fewer edible spuds than in other developing countries, mostly because farmers plant cheap, disease-prone seed. China’s national and local governments are trying to change that by increasing potato funding, hoping the investments will raise rural incomes and help maintain social stability by keeping farmers on their land in the country’s poorest areas. Researchers from Hunan Agricultural University started working with the province’s potato farmers in 2005 and last year used government grant funds to provide training and seeds. Farmers plant in rice fields during the winter, when the land would otherwise produce nothing; potato plants then improve the soil for the next season’s rice cultivation. It’s a good time to be in the Chinese potato business. Wholesale prices increased 85 percent from November to April, thanks in part to a severe drought in the nation’s southwest that has limited supply. ‘We earn the same from one potato crop that we get from three rice crops’ or 10 cabbage crops, said Huang Weihua, 40, the leader of the local farmers association. He pointed to his house, a two-story structure. His son was hard at work remodeling the first floor — potato money, Huang said.”

Some of the latest headlines about potatoes have been generated by people trying to tap the potato’s ability to create power [“Yissum develops potato-powered batteries for the developing world,” by Laura June, engadget, 20 June 2010]. June reports:

“Researchers in Jerusalem have just announced they’ve developed super simple, sustainable, organic electric batteries which are powered by treated potatoes. Their findings have just been published in the Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy, and detail uses of the batteries in the developing world where infrastructure is lacking. The apparently highly efficient battery is made from zinc and copper electrodes and a potato slice which has been boiled. The act of boiling the potato increased the electric power around 10 fold in comparison to an untreated potato, giving it power for days, and sometimes weeks depending on the conditions. The potato batteries are also, of course, way cheaper than regular commercial cells. The technology has officially been made available free of charge to the developing world. We knew there was a reason we loved potatoes so much.”

Yissum Research Development Company was developed in 1964 to protect and commercialized intellectual property generated by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In a press release from Yissum that accompanied publication of its research findings, the CEO, Yaacov Michlin, stated:

“The ability to construct efficient vegetative batteries supplies us with a novel way of exploiting bio-energy sources, which are currently primarily used as fuel. … The ability to provide electrical power with such simple and natural means could benefit millions of people in the developing world, literally bringing light and telecommunication to their life in areas currently lacking electrical infrastructure.”

An old Pennsylvania prayer goes like this: “Potatoes served at breakfast, At dinner served again; Potatoes served at supper, Forever and Amen!” Although that sounds more like a lament than a prayer, as the above articles demonstrate, there are plenty of reasons to give thanks for the lowly potato.

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