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How the potato changed the world

Lilacs are blooming and the crabapple blossom is drifting to the ground, looking like thousands of tiny rose petals. Food for the soul, a gardener friend once told me. We were reminded today, over lunch with Bill McNeill (senior editor of the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History and author of landmark books like Plagues and Peoples and The Rise of the West), that plants not only feed us but can also change the world. Below I’ve pasted an extract from his article about the potato–the subject of discussion today, over a lunch of cold roast beef and potato salad–from our Encyclopedia of World Environmental History, published a couple of years ago.

By happy coincidence, I noticed this morning the first potato shoot in the garden.

“The new crop first became important in Ireland at the time of the conquest by English soldier and statesman Oliver Cromwell (16491652), when the Catholic Irish were banished to Connaught and the Protestant English took possession of the rest of the island. In crowded Connaught, the fact that an acre of potatoes could feed a family for a year if supplemented by the milk of a single cow made survival possible for the banished Irish. But because English laborers refused to accept a potato diet, the new landlords in the rest of Ireland found it less expensive to employ Irish on their estates than to find the bread needed to feed the English.

“Consequently, within less than a century in most of the country rural laborers came to be Irish Catholic and deeply alienated from their Protestant landlords. They subsisted by renting potato land annually and growing enough grass for a cow. Yet, because potatoes and milk constituted an adequate diet, the Catholic population grew so rapidly that work became hard to find after 1815, and wages remained barely enough to pay rising rents. Not surprisingly, hostility between the Catholic Irish and their Protestant oppressors mounted.

“Potatoes played a quite different role on the continent. Starting in northern Italy, peasant farmers living along the so-called Spanish Road took to potatoes spontaneously. When in 1588 the Spanish Armada failed to drive Dutch and English sailors from the seas, Spanish soldiers had to sail to Italy and march overland to the main theater of war in the Low Countries. But marching soldiers had to eat along the way and could do so only by seizing grain from peasants’ barns, leaving little or nothing behind. Peasants along the Spanish Road from northern Italy to the Low Countries quickly learned that planting potatoes in their gardens produced food that was safe from military marauders because potatoes, left hidden in the ground, can be dug as needed throughout the winter, permitting survival even after soldiers had taken all the grain.

“For a long time landowners and urban dwellers paid little attention to the spread of potato gardens along the Spanish Road. They ate bread, and grain fields supplied the towns as before. Yet, even after the Dutch wars ended (1648), potatoes continued to spread among peasants in the Rhinelands and southern Germanywherever the armies of French King Louis XIV (16431715) operated. Then, during the War of the Austrian Succession (17401748), Prussian King Frederick the Great noticed that even prolonged campaigning did not reduce Rhineland peasants to starvation, and he quickly discovered why. He decided that peasants in Prussia needed the same cushion against military requisitioning and ordered local Prussian administrators to find seed potatoes and show peasants how to grow them.

“They obeyed with such effect that when the Seven Years’ War (17561763) broke out and Prussia was invaded year after year by French, Austrian, and Russian armies, Frederick’s peasant subjects had enough potatoes in their gardens to survive. That, in turn, allowed the Prussian state and army to survive, with fateful consequences for subsequent German history. Moreover, each of the invading armies became aware of how potatoes sustained Prussia’s strength. Accordingly, when peace returned, agents of the French, Austrian, and Russian governments set out to propagate potatoes among their own peasants. Suddenly official policy accelerated the spread of potato cultivation throughout the north European plain and simultaneously translated potatoes from a garden crop into a field crop.

“@H1 Food Resources Multiply
“This cultivation vastly multiplied the food resources of northern Europe. The calorie yield from an acre of potatoes was up to four times as great as that from rye, the only grain that did well east of the Elbe River. Moreover, by planting potatoes in fields that had to be fallowed to keep weeds from overwhelming the grain, and then hoeing the potatoes during the growing season to check the weeds, farmers made potatoes a field crop without reducing the output of grain at all. This required extra labor in summer, but potatoes could feed a larger rural labor force with plenty to spare. Population spurted upward, and when employment in mines and factories started to spread from Great Britain after 1815, surplus rural labor was available to sustain the Industrial Revolution. Without all the extra food, Europe’s meteoric increase in wealth and power between 1815 and 1914 could not have occurred. This, then, was the second time that potatoes affected history worldwide, making western Europe exceptionally, if only temporarily, superior to the rest of the world.”

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