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The Global Potato: Food Futures of the Past

Published as part of an environmental storytelling partnership with UCLA's Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies (LENS), with extensive contributions from faculty and MFA students in UCLA’s documentary film program in the School of Theater, Film and Television. The third storyline explores current innovations and visions for ecological, equitable food systems. Find more stories envisioning Food Futures here.

 

In 1664, the English author John Foster publishes a pamphlet whose long title begins, "Englands happiness increased, or, A sure and easie remedy against all succeeding dear years by a plantation of the roots called potatoes." Although the potato has been cultivated in Europe for less than a century at this point — after making its way from the Andes on the ships of Spanish conquistadors — the tuber represents European imperial hopes for better food futures. It also makes many more individual futures, in the form of population growth, possible. Packed with essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber, the potato is a highly adaptable crop that generates far more calories per square acre than grain without requiring processing after being harvested. The economist William McNeill has argued that “potatoes ... permitted a handful of European nations to assert dominion of most of the world between 1750 and 1950,” in part “by forestalling rural starvation” during wars. This population growth in turn helped to increase the number of workers at home, and provided the manpower for colonial expansion abroad.

In the timeline below about the history of the potato, we can see how seemingly promising food futures usher in unforeseen social and environmental consequences. 
 

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Learn more about the potato's prominence in food futures of the past in this list of consulted resources:

Introduction
Clarkson, L.A., and E. Margaret Crawford. Feast and Famine: A History of Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500-1920. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. 

Forster, John. Englands happiness increased, or, A sure and easie remedy...invented and published for the good of the poorer sort. London: Printed for A. Seile, 1664.

McNeill, William H. "How the Potato Changed the World's History." Social Research 66.2 (1999): 67-83.

Story continues below

 

Around 6000 BCE
Bowles, Samuel, and Jung-Kyoo Choi. “Coevolution of farming and private property during the early Holocene.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences May 2013, 110 (22) 8830-8835; DOI:10.1073/pnas.1212149110

Harlan, Jack. Crops and Man. Second edition. Madison, Wisconsin: American Society of Agronomy, Inc., 1992.             

Reader, John. Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009.

Sahlins, Marshall. Stone Age Economics. London and New York: Routledge, 1974. 

 

6000-4000 BCE
Reader, John. Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009.

 

1532-1572
Salaman, Redcliffe N. The History and Social Influence of the Potato. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

 

1760s
Spary, E.C. Feeding France: New Sciences of Food, 1760-1815. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 

 

1845-1849
Donnelly,  James S. The Great Irish Potato Famine. Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2002. 

Fry, William E., and Christine D. Smart. “The return of Phytophthora infestans, a potato pathogen that just won't quit.” Potato Research 42:2 (June 1999): 279-282. DOI: 10.1007/BF02357858

 

Circa 2000
"Indigenous Biocultural Heritage" Asociación ANDES

"Peru’s ‘Potato Guardians’ Protect Native Varieties for Future Generations" International Potato Center

"What We Do." El Parque De La Papa

Argumedo, Alejandro, and Bernard Yun Loong Wong. "The Ayllu System of the Potato Park, Cusco, Peru" IPSI, the International Partnership for the Satoyama Initiative​


Bollier, David. "The Potato Park of Peru" Henrich Böll Stiftung: The Green Political Foundation

 

Circa 2018
International Potato Center. "Indicators Show Potatoes Can Grow on Mars" News release, March 8, 2017.

The Martian. Directed by Ridley Scott. Los Angeles: 20th Century Fox, 2015. 

 

 

Top image: A farmer holds a handful of potatoes at El Parque de la Papa in Peru. | International Potato Center (CIP) / CC BY-NC 2.0 

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