Posts Tagged ‘potato’

The Potato – Egalitarian Crop?

February 15, 2011

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’.