The Potato

The potato was domesticated in the Americas and grown there as food for thousands of years before the Europeans first discovered it in 1537. The potato was brought to Spain from the New World, and from there spread slowly across Europe, where it is today a regular ingredient in many kitchens and dishes. The potato became an important staple crop in Europe and contributed to population growth in the 18th and 19th century; especially among the lower classes where it constituted the primary source of the daily intake of nutrients. However relying on a single staple crop and monocultures to feed the lower classes makes a system vulnerable, which became clear in Ireland in 1845-1852, when the potato crop failed and created what today is known as the Irish potato famine, where about 1 million Irish people died of starvation and poverty.

In the Anthropocene, global temperatures are expected to rise. In Lester Browns book, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (2008), many threats to modern civilization by temperature rises are explained, there among food safety and the security of food systems (2008:48-52). Rising temperatures causes more extreme weather, as floods, droughts and heath waves, and more pests which will lead to lower harvests; which with a growing population could cause both local and global food scarcity. All staple crops, as wheat, corn, rice and potatoes are sensitive to temperatures and at too high temperatures the crop will fail. There would probably also be a rise in global market prices and the effects from future food scarcity are likely not to be evenly distributed among the global population.

The introduction and the success of the potato to Europe could be a representative of Crosby’s ecological imperialism, where the Europeans spreading of species across continents is explained as biological expansion. Very recently an article by Lewis and Maslin (2015) suggested that the spreading of species by the Europeans could be seen as a marker for the start of the Anthropocene, this due to the changes in the natural ecosystems by the introduction of exotic species by human activity as trade and travel. Often the biological expansion leads to native species being affected negatively, and sometimes even goes extinct. The potato, when it became popular throughout Europe, stole the place at the table from the beet, which was before the common staple crop of large part of Europe. The potato has successfully made itself a staple crop in the whole world.

Image credits:
Woman lifting potatoes. Painting by Van Gogh, V. (1885).
By Niek Sprakel from Utrecht, Netherlands
[CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Further readings:

Brown, Lester. 2008. Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. Norton & Company. New York. 397.

Crosby, Alfred W. 2004. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900. Second Edition.    Cambridge University Press. 361.

Lewis, Simon L. and Maslin, Mark A.  2015. Defining the Anthropocene. Nature 519. 171-180.


Emma Fogelström

B.Sc with a Major in Environmental Science. I am very interested in the interrelation of the natural and the cultural spheres, and how human behavior affect the environment. Especially I am interested in Climate change and how it affects our planet in many ways. Another topic of hearth is urban agriculture as a way to make cities more selfsufficient and less dependent on systems outside of the city and transportation. The Anthropocene, I believe to be a very interesting debate, and I am excited to see what final result will come from it. How are humanity going to act in "the age of man"?