One of the most important crops brought to the Old World was the potato. Nunn and Qian (2010) claim it is the crop with the largest impact on the Old World. It is a tubular with enough vitamins to prevent scurvy and enough starch and water to eat as one’s only food (Mann, 2011).
Potatoes originally came from the Andes in South America (Mann, 2011). Francisco Pizarro was the first Spaniard to see the potato in its original environment (Mann, 2011). The potato is grown by planting a piece of itself. When the potato was taken to Spain, only one variety was taken (Mann, 2011). In Europe, they used the same variety of potato everywhere creating fields of potato clones (Mann, 2011). In South America, the Andean natives bred different potato varieties, which vary in size and color (Mann, 2011).
When the potato was brought to Europe, people were unsure of it (Crosby, 1972). Some people thought it caused leprosy while others believed it caused gas (Crosby, 1972). Others believed it to be an aphrodisiac and cause lust (Mann, 2011). In England, the wheat harvest failed in 1794 sending the price of wheat up (Pollan, 2001). When the poor citizens of Europe could no longer afford wheat, they forgot the superstitions and hesitations of the potato (Pollan, 2010).
Louis XVI had to help the peasants in France embrace the potato (Pollan, 2010). He had a potato field planted within the royal grounds and guarded (Pollan, 2010). The guards protected the potatoes during the day and left the potatoes unguarded at midnight (Pollan, 2010). After a few nights, peasants stole the potatoes and started growing the potatoes for themselves (Pollan, 2010).
After a famine hit Hungary in 1772, the government ordered that potatoes be planted, grown, and eaten (Crosby, 1972). Even though the Hungarian people had no idea what the potato was, they planted and ate the potato increasing potato production (Crosby, 1972). As other famines hit Europe, the potato became a staple crop, especially in Ireland.
Ireland fully embraced the potato. With deep soils, Ireland had the perfect growing grounds for potatoes (Crosby, 1972). As the population of Ireland grew, so did the consumption of potatoes (Crosby, 1972). With milk and one-and-a-half acres of planted potatoes, a family could eat for a year in Ireland (Crosby, 1972). The people of Ireland became dependent on the potato as their food and livelihood. Then in 1845, the potato blight hit Ireland (Crosby, 1972). The people of Ireland who once depended on the potato died because of famine due to the blight ruining countless acres (Crosby, 1972). People in Ireland had become so dependent on the potato as food that when the blight hit, people did not know what they could afford to grow and eat.
The blight did not stop the consumption of the potato though (Crosby, 1972). As industrialization brought more people into the cities and the population grew, the potato was relied on even more as a food (Crosby, 1972). In the beginning of the nineteenth century, the potato was claimed as an indispensable plant in Europe (Crosby, 1972).
Want to know how the potato blight came to Ireland and more about how connected the world is? Watch the video courtesy of YouTube (Knopfdoubleday, 2011).
Maize is believed to have helped China establish and feed a booming population, while the potato helped Europe feed and increase its population (Mann, 2011). The Irish population grew by seven million in two centuries because of the potato (Mann, 2011). The potato offered nutrition, so fewer children died and more people survived infectious diseases (Mann, 2011). The potato also helped prevent deaths from famine, except when the potato blight caused a famine (Mann, 2011).
If the potato had not been brought to the Old World, how might history be different? What would Ireland be known for if the potato was never introduced? Without the potato, the population in Europe probably would not have increased (Nunn & Qian, 2010). On the same hand, the potato blight might not have occurred causing a famine leaving hundreds of thousands dead of starvation. The potato increased profits to farmers, which directly benefited farmers (Nunn & Qian, 2010). Without this increase in money, how would lifestyles have changed? One can only imagine how history would be different in the Old World without the potato. Potatoes have had an effect on the Old World and have had a positive effect on Europe’s population.