The humble aloo was often a means for mothers to get us to eat the vegetables we disliked she made in our childhood. A few pieces of potato would transform the dish and get us to like it… at least a little. But the potato carries with it the pride of having changed the course of human history.
Potatoes were first cultivated by the Incan tribe and was a crop that fed a majority of their population. The nutritional content of potatoes was sufficient to fuel the workers which helped the Incan society flourish. However, when sailors set out to explore the world, cultures and ecological components began to get exchanged.
This is when the potato was introduced to other parts of the world. It was during this exploration period that Spanish sailors introduced Europe to the tuber. At first, it was quite difficult for most people to give it a try.
Potatoes were initially used as show plants. Marie Antoinette even used the flowers of the potato plant to decorate her hair. Louis XVI put the flowers on his buttonhole starting a short-lived fashion trend amongst the aristocrats in France. It would still take some time and many deaths before potatoes became a staple.
At the time, frequent famines plagued Europe leaving the working classes and lower classes without much food security. Grains were often not able to survive through the extreme cold and the crops would get destroyed. And then, potatoes came to the rescue. They were very easy to grow particularly because they could survive the harsh cold with ease.
Potatoes soon began feeding a majority of the working-class population and over time became a staple around Europe. The population too began steadily increasing leading to a strong working-class population – people to work. The influx of population combined with major scientific discoveries and development led to industrialisation. At the end of it all, countries like England and France became strong players in the game of world domination.
Colorado Potato Beetle (Source)
The unassuming potato were not only responsible, in part at least, in tipping the scales towards the favour of the West but also played a major role in the development of the pesticide industry. Artificial pesticides were first created to combat the Colorado Potato Beetle.
Industrialisation then led to capitalism. And with capitalism came competitive markets for everything including pesticides. The quest for survival led to more research and development that went into the production of pesticides, culminating in a booming pesticide industry.
All was not perfect with potatoes. In Ireland, between 1845 and 1849, potato crops were successively destroyed owing to the late blight disease that affected the leaves and edible roots of the potato crops. This led to one of the most severe famines human history has ever witnessed. It was named the Great Famine and left about 1.5 million people dead.
The unassuming potato, however was pivotal in affecting the geopolitical scenario as well as greatly influencing the Green Revolution.
Food for thought – it is fascinating to think about what would have happened if potatoes never reached the continent of Europe. Would England and France still be as powerful?
By Asterilla Joanne Monteiro