Brought to Europe from the New World by Spanish explorers, the lowly potato gave rise to modern industrial agriculture
By Charles C. Mann
Today the potato is the fifth most important crop worldwide, after wheat, corn, rice and sugar cane. But in the 18th century the tuber was a startling novelty, frightening to some, bewildering to others—part of a global ecological convulsion set off by Christopher Columbus.
Many researchers believe that the potato’s arrival in northern Europe spelled an end to famine there. (Corn, another American crop, played a similar but smaller role in southern Europe.) More than that, as the historian William H. McNeill has argued, the potato led to empire: “By feeding rapidly growing populations, [it] permitted a handful of European nations to assert dominion over most of the world between 1750 and 1950.” The potato, in other words, fueled the rise of the West.
Equally important, the European and North American adoption of the potato set the template for modern agriculture—the so-called agro-industrial complex. Not only did the Columbian Exchange carry the potato across the Atlantic, it also brought the world’s first intensive fertilizer: Peruvian guano. And when potatoes fell to the attack of another import, the Colorado potato beetle, panicked farmers turned to the first artificial pesticide: a form of arsenic. Competition to produce ever-more-potent arsenic blends launched the modern pesticide industry. In the 1940s and 1950s, improved crops, high-intensity fertilizers and chemical pesticides created the Green Revolution, the explosion of agricultural productivity that transformed farms from Illinois to Indonesia—and set off a political argument about the food supply that grows more intense by the day.
The annual diet of an average global citizen in the first decade of the 21st century included about 33 kg (73 lb) of potato. However, the local importance of potato is extremely variable and rapidly changing. It remains an essential crop in Europe (especially eastern and central Europe), where per capita production is still the highest in the world, but the most rapid expansion over the past few decades has occurred in southern and eastern Asia. China is now the world's largest potato-producing country, and nearly a third of the world's potatoes are harvested in China and India.
For more on the subject, see Review of When Worlds Collide and Native Foods Changed the World.