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1493: Our Agricutural Friend, the Potato

In the spirit of expediency, I'm going to paste my journal notes after the summary.

Summary: potatoes were a very big deal for Europe. More productive, better growing season, more nutritionally complete, ended lots of famines, until the big blight one of course. Also led to modern agriculture, with clonal crops and lots of added fertilizer, then pesticide.



Tubers more productive than grains: no limit to the size underground,
while if grain head gets too big the plant falls over and dies.
Potatoes fed Europe, allowing political stability despite growing
populations and the opportunity to take advantage of all that silver. (And you can leave them in the ground, harder for soldiers to steal.)
It also set a template for modern agriculture: potatoes were fed with
Peruvian guano shipped across the Atlantic, and to fight the Colorado
potato beetle, farmers turned to arsenic compounds invented pesticides
to spray over their fields.

Offenburg had an 1853 statue to Drake, for disseminating the potato in
1586. Nazis destroyed it in Kristallnacht. The history is wrong
anyway.

Andes: as if Europe had to support itself by farming the Alps; most of
the region's arable land is in the altiplano at 12,000 feet. Yet lots
of societies and empires: Nasca, Chavin, Wari, Moche, Tiwanaku, Chimor,
and finally the Inca. The only empires fed by tubers instead of grains.
(Wheat and barley in the Mideast and egypt, maize in Mesoamerica, rice
in Asia.) Like maize, the ancestry of the potato is uncertain, a double
testament to Indian bio-engineering. Early potatoes were probably eaten
with clay, after observing wild llamas, which adsorbs the toxins. The
cultures had a lot more ways of preparing potatoes too, including
repeated freeze-thaw cycles to make chuño, 1/3 the weight and
preserved. Freeze-dried? He doesn't use the word.

The slopes, often more than 20 degrees, used lots of terraces. Flatter
Titicaca used raised fields, platforms separated by trenches of water.
The water retained heat, the topography created turbulence and air
mixing, warming the crops by 4° F.

Lots of varieties too, for both altitude and flavor range. A single
filed has more genetic diversity than 90% of the entire US crop. They
plant clones, landraces, but lots of them. Scholars don't even agree on
how many species are involved.

First food that Europeans grew from tuber rather than seed.

France had 40 nationwide famines between 1500 and 1778, more than one
a decade; this doesn't include local famines.
In the 1760s, Arthur Young found that average grain harvest in eastern
England was 1300-1500 pounds/acre. Potatoes were 25,000 pounds.
Potatoes were 22% dry matter, wheat 88%, so it's more like 1267 pounds
to 5,636 -- still a fourfold advantage. Farmers left half their grain
land fallow for rest and weed control; by using potatoes, they doubled
the food supply. A bigger benefit than sheer size was a more reliable
food supply: potatoes mature in 3 months and could be harvested in the
summer, when last year's grain was running out, and unaffected by bad
falls. Could be left in the ground, thus harder to steal by armies.

It's a fairly complete food by itself, all essential nutrients but
vitamins A and D, providable by milk; the Irish poor lived on potatoes
and milk, Europe's poorest yet most well nourished people. 40% had
potato as only solid food. 1.5 million in the 1600s to 8.5 million two
centuries later, thanks to more children surviving -- fewer famines,
better disease resistance. Norway also saw big death spikes vanish, and
soaring population. Potatoes saved Swiss mountain hamlets from the Little
Ice Age and its short growing seasons.

(I checked online: weak in calcium, zinc, selenium, riboflavin, E, K)
(milk stronger in calcium, zinc, selenium, B-12, riboflavin)
(carrots give A, leafy greens K (spinach, parsley, brassica, chard), greens for E)

(Other boom causes: better transportation networks, reclaiming of
marshland and upland pasture, privatizing village commons, use of stable
manure as fertilizers, clover fields, waning Ice Age. Two economists
estimated potatoes were responsible for at least 1/8 of Europe's
population increase, making it as important as the steam engine.)

Coastal Chincha islands off Peru have (had?) guano 150 feet thick. Inca llama
trains would carry it up into the mountains.

Europe got paranoid about soil depletion; even battlefields like Waterloo
provided bone meal as (not very good) fertilizer.

Guano mining pretty unattractive. Peru didn't want to pay enough, and
slaves were too valuable. Fujianese lured away by promises of working
in the California gold fields, but destined for Chilean slavery. (Or in
the US, railroads.) Sugar and cotton plantations, railroads, and
birdshit, with African slaves as overseers.

Europe and America were quickly dependent on fertilizer, as we still
are, and ranted resentfully about their dependence on the Peruvian
monopoly, just like us and OPEC.

Before potato and maize, European living standards were equivalent to
Cameroon or Bangladesh today, below Bolivia or Zimbabwe, eating less on
average than hunter-gatherers in Africa or the Amazon. One historian
thinks Europe was on the edge of serious soil depletion in the 19th
century, on the edge of full disaster.
Joachim Radkau: the key environmental innovations of the 18th century
were "the potato and coitus interruptus."

Of course, then you got blight, and later the potato beetle -- which is one mutation away from a wild state that prefers buffalo bur. Blight helped by the clonal crops vs. the diversity of the Andes. Also helped by reformers; Irish agriculture was "lazy-bed", similar to Andean wacho, cutting out blocks of sod and piling them into ridges. Held heat long, stifled weds, left roots intact so resisted erosion and let grass grow quickly after harvest. Also created diversity of microconditions that inhibited blight spread. 18th century reformers like Jethro Tull pushed for deep plowing, total planting, machinery.

Famine: Ireland still has fewer people than it did 150 years ago. That's probably unique.

Potato beetle led to development of arsenic based pesticides, and our treadmill of pesticides, pest resistance, new pesticides, etc.


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