The Potato – Egalitarian Crop?

Cultural Materialism – ‘an anthropological school of thought (or “research strategy”) that says that the best way to understand human culture is to examine material conditions – climate, food supply, geography, etc.’ (link)

From Charles C. Mann’s 1491, an interesting perspective on the potato; another foodplant that ‘doesn’t belong‘ outside (perhaps) of its home in South America, but was adopted – apparently – for the relative social benefits it conferred when compared to the other major introduced species feeding the growth of civilisation:

The staple crop of the [Peruvian] highlands was the potato, which unlike maize regularly grows at altitudes of 14,000 feet; the tubers, cultivated in hundreds of varieties, can be left in the ground for as long as a year (as long as the soil stays above 27°F), to be dug up when needed. Even frozen potatoes could be used. After letting freezing night temperatures break down the tubers’ cell walls, Andean farmers stomped out the water content to make dried chuño, a nigh-indestructible foodstuff that could be stored for years. (The potato’s cold tolerance spurred its embrace by European peasants. Not only did potatoes grow in places where other crops could not, the plant was an ally in smallholders’ ceaseless struggle against the economic and political elite. A farmer’s barnful of wheat, rye, or barley was a fat target for greedy landlords and marauding armies; buried in the soil, a crop of potatoes could not be easily seized.) (pp.225-6)

More info from Wikipedia:

Following the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire, the Spanish introduced the potato to Europe in the second half of the 16th century. The staple was subsequently conveyed by European mariners to territories and ports throughout the world. The potato was slow to be adopted by distrustful European farmers, but soon enough it became an important food staple and field crop that played a major role in the European 19th century population boom.[7]


Across most of northern Europe, where open fields prevailed, potatoes were strictly confined to small garden plots because field agriculture was strictly governed by custom that prescribed seasonal rhythms for plowing, sowing, harvesting and grazing animals on fallow and stubble. This meant that potatoes were barred from large-scale cultivation because the rules allowed only grain to be planted in the open fields.[29] In France and Germany government officials and noble landowners promoted the rapid conversion of fallow land into potato fields after 1750. The potato thus became an important staple crop in northern Europe. Famines in the early 1770s contributed to its acceptance, as did government policies in several European countries and climate change during the Little Ice Age, when traditional crops in this region did not produce as reliably as before.[30][31] At times when and where most other crops failed, potatoes could still typically be relied upon to contribute adequately to food supplies during colder years.[32]

I suppose a key factor undermining the potato’s egalitarian potential is its storability*: if it can be stockpiled (to any degree – even if less so than grains) this basically invites an elite group to come along, stick surpluses in a guarded barn and deny access to anybody refusing to pay tribute (as Richard Manning put it: ‘Agriculture was not so much about food as it was about the accumulation of wealth’). Naturally, this would only work if they also found ways to deny access to comparable plants freely available in the wild. (Destroying non-agricultural land to plant more potatoes would be a good start…) Here’s either Ray Mears or Gordon Hillman writing in Wild Food, the book accompanying the BBC series:

Roots were an extremely important food source for our ancestors. In Britain we have more than 90 indigenous species of edible root of which most were probably used by the combined populations across the country. Evan an individual band of hunter-gatherers probably used 20-30 species in the course of their annual round. Compare this to our present-day diet, in which root foods are dominated by a single introduced species – the potato – and in which our cultivated carrots, turnips, swedes and radishes were probably much later additions, domesticated in the Mediterranean Basin from where they were introduced into Britain, although wild forms were native here. The bland taste of these domestic forms probably appeals to a lot of palates in contrast to the broad range of distinctive and often strong flavours offered by wild roots. (pp.80-1)

Of course, decentralised self-sufficiency and a degree of social equality aren’t much good to you if you’re dead. Ask the Irish about the dangers of relying too heavily on a few varieties of non-native foodplants. Not that they had much choice in the matter:

The Celtic grazing lands of… Ireland had been used to pasture cows for centuries. The British colonised… the Irish, transforming much of their countryside into an extended grazing land to raise cattle for a hungry consumer market at home… The British taste for beef had a devastating impact on the impoverished and disenfranchised people of… Ireland… Pushed off the best pasture land and forced to farm smaller plots of marginal land, the Irish turned to the potato, a crop that could be grown abundantly in less favorable soil. Eventually, cows took over much of Ireland, leaving the native population virtually dependent on the potato for survival.[25]

If cultures are what they eat, what kind of food staples would lead to the least hierarchical social organisation? The above seems to suggest: as many different ones as possible, and the more uncontrollable (perishable), localised and wild the better.

Food for Freedom!


* – Indeed, Mann doesn’t mention that conquistadors later made use of it as a ‘convenient food for slaves in the Spanish silver mines and sailors on the Spanish galleons’ (link) – in this instance the plant acted less as an ‘ally’ than a collaborator with the enemy in the indigenous struggle against a foreign ‘economic and political elite’.

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One Response to “The Potato – Egalitarian Crop?”

  1. ondisturbedground Says:

    Not sure how it might relate to the culture it feeds, but the potato, like the grains that birthed civilisations in other parts of the globe, contains high levels of anti-nutrients – enzyme blockers and lectins – that wreak havoc in the digestive tract and all over the body, causing cell death and auto-immune reactions. Neither cooking or getting dunked in stomach acid are sufficient to neutralise these effects. For a full discussion of this read the ‘Nutritional Vegetarians’ chapter, especially from p.147 onwards, in Lierre Keith’s Vegetarian Myth (scribd).

    Also like the other grains, heavy dependence on the potato brings all the associated problems of a high-carb diet. More from Keith:

    What’s the difference between complex carbohydrates and sugar? Despite the intense propaganda to declare the former “good” and the latter “bad,” not much. “Many people are of the opinion that there are good and bad carbohydrates, when in actuality there are barely tolerable and awful sugars,” write the Drs. Eades.37 Whether “complex” or “simple,” all carbohydrates are sugars. The only difference is whether they are individual sugar molecules or a string of sugar molecules. Glucose is the simplest sugar, made of a single molecule. Sucrose, regular table sugar, is made of two molecules and is, hence, a disaccharide. There are three-molecule trisaccharides. Sugars with more molecules are called polysaccharides. These include grains, beans, and potatoes.

    Why don’t these differences matter? Because our digestive system can’t digest the long chains. They’re too big to be absorbed through the intestinal wall. So our bodies break them down into simple sugars. And every last molecule eventually hits the bloodstream:

    So whether it began life as a fat-free bagel, a quarter cup of sugar from the sugar bowl, a canned soft drink, a bowl of fettuccine, a baked potato, or a handful of jelly beans, by the time your intestinal tract gets finished snipping the links of those starch and sugar chains, it’s all been reduced to … sugar. Specifically, to glucose. And in the end there’s very little metabolic difference between your eating a medium baked potato or drinking a 12-ounce can of soda pop. Each contains about fifty grams of easily digestible and rapidly available glucose. It may surprise you to know that the potato might even be slightly worse in terms of the rise in blood sugar that follows it.38

    According to the USDA, we should be eating a diet that is 60 percent carbohydrate. Your body will turn that carbohydrate into almost two cups of glucose, and each and every molecule has to be reckoned with. (ibid. p.155)


    There is no such thing as a necessary carbohydrate. Read that again. Write the Drs. Eades, “the actual amount of carbohydrates required by humans for health is zero.”

    Every cell in your body can make all the sugar it needs. That includes the cells in your hungry brain. The detractors of low-carb diets have created and endlessly repeated the myth that our brains need glucose and hence we need to eat carbohydrates. Yes, our brains do need glucose–which is precisely why our bodies can make glucose. What the brain actually needs is a very steady supply of glucose: too much or too little will create a biological emergency that can result in coma and death, as any diabetic will tell you. And a constant cycle of too much/too little is exactly what a carbohydrate-based diet will provide, leaving a wreckage of deteriorating organs and arteries behind. (p.153)

    Gives me pause before I clear the weeds and dig the soil to plant my first potato patch…

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