Travels of the Potato

Adapted from chapter 6 of 1493 by Charles C. Mann It describes event flowing from the 1492 discovery -- often called the Columbian Exchange. Outline below poorly captures 44 pages.

  1. Intro paragraph to chapter ends:
    Modern farmers ignore the seed (of potatoes), instead cutting up tubers and planting the pieces -- now tubers are called "seed potatoes."
    [This first paragraph is filled with fanciful items to attract the reader -- o.k. in a book with chapters titled as this one "Potato Wars."]
  2. Today the potato is the fifth most important crop worldwide
    [and the author is off around the world but comes back].
  3. Potatoes are about three-quarters water and one-quarter starch but have vitamins enough to prevent scurvy if consumed in quantity.
    [Onto research by Poles, Irish and Brits and the first potato war.]
  4. Compared to grains, tubers are inherently more productive.
    [Compares grains that fall over as opposed to potatoes supported in thin the ground.]
  5. Many scholars believe that the introduction of tubers to Europe was a key moment in history.
    [leads to great quote from McNeill "potatoes by feeding rapidly growing populations, permitted a handful of Europeans nations to assert domination over most of the world between 1750 and 1950."]
  6. As important in the long run, the European and North American adoption of the potato set the template for modern agriculture--the agri-industrial complex.
  7. Not only did the Columbian Exchange carry the ultra-productive potato to Europe and North America, it also brought ultra-productive Andean potato-cultivation techniques, including the world's first fertilizer: Peruvian guano.
    [Once again the author spins a tale that also in the next paragraph leads to first inorganic pesticide -- arsenic -- and then to the development of the third component of modern agribusiness: modern pesticide industry.]

The first section establishes the importance of the potato. The rest of the chapter explores many aspects of the story -- a rich tapestry. See tight form of above TSO

The chapter continues with sections entitled:

  1. Sea of Genes. But the route is roundabout.
    • Farming techniques in the Andes leads to many of potato varieties: 3700 cultivated and many wild.
    • But in Europe planting tuber pieces lead to a mono variety that eventually solved the 'food problem' of Europe.
    • It is hard to be precise but the introduction of the potato was as important to the modern age as the invention of the steam engine.
  2. The guano age
    • Peruvian booby, cormorant and pelican nested on Chicha Islands for millennia and covered the islands with guano layer as much as 150 feet thick.
      [Author goes on to extol the virtue of guano (nitrogen rich) and glories of bird urine in building layer on the Chicha islands.]
    • Andean indians discovered (perhaps about ~1000) that guano -- transported by llama - replenished depleted soils.
    • It took time to convince European of the glories of guano but by 1850 the trade was worth at least $13 billion in today's dollar.
    • The start of fertilizer export is not a pretty story. Slaves, many imported from China, were essential to the trade.
    • When guano gave out, it was replaced by nitrates mined from deposits in Chilean desert.
    • While guano set the template for modern agriculture, fortunately German chemistry synthesized nitrogen-rich compounds that spawned the start of modern chemical industries.
  3. Thoroughly Modern Farming.
    • Not a nice subject. Starts with blight. Ireland emptied out.
    • It turns out that Andes agriculture didn't have blights but no one had noticed that was the case or wondered why. Eventually science came to the rescue but...
    • Beetles came and other things. We still have problems. But we don't know why or don't want to.
    • The chapter ends with a neighbor of the author blaming the 2000 New England blight as follows: "Those tomatoes come from China."

  • Your comments and suggestions are appreciated.

    To cite this page:

    <http://www.physics.ohio-state.edu/~wilkins.5/energy/Resources/Lectures/potato.html>
    [Thursday, 14-Dec-2017 10:19:33 EST]
    Edited by: wilkins@mps.ohio-state.edu on Tuesday, 27-Sep-2011 13:57:08 EDT