How the potato got hot

Tom Standage, author of "An Edible History of Humanity," is business affairs editor at the Economist. A version of this story appeared in the Saturday edition of Sunday's paper.

A tale from history offers us a prediction about the future of food.

The wonder crop is new and unfamiliar, lauded by scientists and politicians as having the potential to end famine and feed the poor. But the public is skeptical, regarding this new food as unnatural and dangerous. The reaction to genetically modified crops today? In fact, this is what happened when potatoes were introduced into Europe from the Americas in the 1500s and 1600s.

Scientists were enamored with this new foodstuff because it had several valuable properties. Potatoes thrive even in years when the wheat crop has failed, noted a committee of the Royal Society, Britain’s pioneering scientific association, in the 1660s. Better still, potatoes can be grown in almost any kind of soil and take only three to four months to mature, against 10 for cereal grains. And potatoes produce two to four times as many calories per acre as wheat, rye or oats. The case for widespread adoption of the potato, the scientists argued, was obvious.

The public was much less enthusiastic. Potatoes aroused suspicion because they were unfamiliar. They were not mentioned in the Bible, which suggested that God had not meant people to eat them, said some clergymen. To herbalists who believed that the appearance of a plant was an indication of the diseases it could cause or cure, potatoes resembled a leper’s gnarled hands, and the idea that they caused leprosy became widespread. More scientifically inclined botanists identified these first-known edible tubers as members of the poisonous nightshade family, and potatoes came to be associated with witchcraft and devil worship.


But European attitudes toward potatoes shifted during the 1700s as a result of two things: war and famine. Disruptions to the food supply meant that some people had no choice but to eat potatoes, and they soon discovered that their fears about them were unfounded. In Britain, the potato became more widespread after two bad wheat harvests. “From the apprehension of a second year of scarcity, potatoes have been everywhere planted and their produce has been generally great,” noted the Times of London approvingly in 1795.

A series of famines earned the potato some friends in high places, so that its adoption became official policy in many countries. Frederick the Great of Prussia urged wider cultivation of potatoes among his subjects after crops failed in 1740. In Russia, Catherine the Great’s medical advisors convinced her that the potato could be an antidote to starvation.

The potato’s greatest champion, however, was Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, a French scientist. While serving in the army in the 1760s, he spent three years in a Prussian jail, where he subsisted almost entirely on potatoes and became convinced of their merits. On his return to France, he wrote a prize-winning essay touting potatoes as “foodstuffs capable of reducing the calamities of famine,” and convinced other scientists and doctors of their benefits.

But the public was unmoved until Parmentier arranged a series of publicity stunts. He organized a potato-heavy birthday banquet for King Louis XVI, for example, and persuaded the king’s wife, Marie Antoinette, to wear potato flowers in her hair. She never actually said, “Let them eat cake,” but she did endorse the potato.

But Parmentier’s greatest trick was to post armed guards around the fields just outside Paris, given to him by the king, where he was growing potatoes. This aroused the interest of the local people, who wondered what valuable crop could possibly require such measures. Once the crop was ready, Parmentier withdrew the guards, and the locals duly rushed in and stole the potatoes. Several potato dishes are named after Parmentier in recognition of the success of his efforts.

Today, in an era when French fries are an icon of globalization, it is difficult to imagine that people were once afraid to eat potatoes. Yet many of the concerns they raised are now inspired by genetically modified foodstuffs. As with potatoes, they are seen by their critics as unnatural and possibly dangerous, though they also raise entirely new concerns about the extent to which agriculture has come under the control of large companies. At the same time, the technology is championed by scientists and politicians who regard it as a promising approach to increasing the food supply.


Might the threat of famine and war cause attitudes to shift again? Hardly a month goes by without a new report on the impact of climate change on global agriculture. A recent report from the International Food Policy Research Institute warned of the “dramatic consequences” for agriculture as variations in rainfall patterns cause droughts and floods, and coastal food-producing areas are inundated and yields decline. There have also been warnings of “food wars” triggered by shifts in the distribution of fertile land and water supplies. Meanwhile, the world’s population is heading toward 9.2 billion people by 2075, according to U.N. forecasts. For most of the world’s population, climate change will manifest itself as a food crisis.

Navigating the coming food-climate-population crunch will require new approaches to food production, both to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture itself (about 15% of the total) and to ensure that there is enough food for everyone. Advocates of genetic modification argue that it could be used to develop new varieties of wheat, corn and other crops that require less fertilizer and water and are more disease-resistant. Such miracle crops have yet to be developed, but a lot of research is underway. That much of it is being done by government researchers in developing countries might help to neutralize the objection that genetic technology is part of a nefarious corporate plot to enslave the world’s farmers.

What is clear is that it will be necessary to assemble the largest possible toolbox of agricultural methods for the coming century. That will include making the best use of traditional and modern farming techniques, and creating hybrids of the two. It will also open the door to new approaches, from wider use of techniques developed since the 1970s that minimize the tilling of the soil to reduce erosion and fuel use to the cultivation of food using hydroponic techniques in “vertical farms” inside skyscrapers. And it seems plausible that the prospect of famine and war might also prompt people to put aside their worries about genetically modified crops -- just as they did, more than 200 years ago, in the case of the potato.