History through the eyes of the potato - Leo Bear-McGuinness
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The potato is an underground food storage tuber that evolved so the plant can still feed when the days grow shorter. However, an easily accessible source of carbohydrates, protein and nutrients can be attractive to herbivores. To prevent the potato from being eaten, the plant evolved to contain distasteful and toxic Steroidal glycoalkaloids such as Solanine. Learn more about the history of the potato here.
How the South American natives managed to cultivate this poisonous growth (aka the potato) into the edible food it is today is still one of the greatest agricultural mysteries. However, once accomplished, the ancient Peruvians had a nutritious food supply; hardy enough to grow at altitudes of up to 4,000 meters – which was handy for living up in the Andes.
Phytophthora infestans (the oomycete agent that caused the famine) first arrived in Ireland around September 1845 from docking ships. Farmers first noticed the effects of the disease when both the leaves and potatoes of the plant became black and rotten.
Of course, the many deaths of the Irish potato famine cannot just be attributed to the disease alone; bureaucracy also had a large part to play. The British government (Ireland was a British colony at the time) bought large amounts of inedible American maize and underestimated the length of the famine, assuming it would only last one year.
One interesting consequence of the Famine was the cultural shift from Irish to English as the language of the majority. This was due to the Irish-speaking districts being hit hardest by the famine. Awareness of the cultural loss provided a spur to the work of Irish language activists in Ireland, Britain, America, and Australia, resulting in the foundation of such organizations as the Gaelic League.
While much of the history of the potato is centered on its bolstering of Europe and America, today its scope is even broader. With its bounty of nutrition and hardiness to grow in almost any climate, the potato has gone on to conquer the world; helping to feed millions in developing countries such as Malawi, which is now sub-Saharan Africa's biggest potato producer.
As well as growing the economies of developing countries, the potato has also helped fuel the rise of the world's newest major power: China. China, now the biggest potato producer in the world, has had some difficulty actually accepting the tubers into their own culture, actually exporting most of the potatoes it grows to other countries. There has been great resistance to replacing the historically used carbohydrate source, rice. Find out more by reading this article: Kung Pao Potato: Can China Learn to Love the Spud?.
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