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The Potato Moment


“What’s in your garden?”

I have been thinking a lot about potatoes lately–and gold. Interesting how subjects converge.

I just checked the price of gold, and it is about $1,660 an ounce, but it may be rising higher because the stock market is sinking. I see gold buying as an investment in the dark side, the fear that economic catastrophe is at hand. The theory is that when all currencies are worthless, gold possessed by the very few could ensure enormous advantage. However, one wonders if a starving man would take all the gold in the world for a single potato. I think of this as The Potato Moment.

The potato, in fact, stars in what may later be seen as an apocryphal story about a looming crisis in human history. I discovered this one night when I chose as bedtime reading a collection of some of the best articles that have ever appeared in National Geographic. I settled on “The Great Potato,” by Robert E. Rhoades, which was published in 1985. It is, indeed, a classic. Rhoades shared some of his research at the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru, which is dedicated to preserving some 13,000 different native strains of potato.

Until reading this article, I had thought that all of a handful of potato varieties I knew about had appeared everywhere simultaneously. However, I learned that the potato originated in southern Peru and northern Bolivia, where farmers still plant hundreds of varieties. It was the Spaniards, and specifically Francisco Pizarro, who caused the potato to travel all over the world. Potatoes were loaded into the hold of his ship as provisions for the homeward journey after his expedition in the 1530s failed to find the fabled gold of the Inca Atahuallpa. Soon after he returned, the humble spud was being planted virtually everywhere.  Rhoades noted the irony that in their pursuit of gold the Spaniards “were unaware of the buried treasure beneath their feet.”

A 2011 National Geographic article, “The Ark,”by Charles Siebert, explains that the thousands of potatoes “are so varied in flavor and nutrition that a whole diet can be built around them.” He also writes that the world’s burgeoning population will soon require us to double food production, a horrifying challenge. Unfortunately, we have foregone diversity to feed the multitudes already and are now vulnerable to the frailties of  homogeneous food sources. The Irish potato famine is a tragic example of the consequences. The Lumper potato had become a staple, and when it was infected with a fungus called Phytophthora infestans in 1845, crops turned into a foul-smelling mush in the fields and millions of people died of starvation. In like manner, the entire world is now vulnerable to a fungus called Puccinia graminis or stem rust, which is on the move infecting the very limited number of wheat varieties we rely on.

Of course climate change that disrupts agricultural production worldwide will intensify the difficulty of feeding the seven billion people on the planet already.  It may be that The Potato Moment will be upon us sooner than anyone could have imagined, and all the gold in the world will be no protection. This reminds me of that very successful television commercial promoting a certain credit card. It had the clever tag line “What’s in your wallet?” Maybe the more important question will soon be, “What’s in your garden?”

“The Potato Eaters” by Vincent van Gogh

One Response to “The Potato Moment”

  1. Penni Casper

    What IS in our gardens. If we have one. And if not we should. A garden can be anywhere, and should be. Janet Marinelli of Brooklyn Botanic Garden recently spoke at a symposium I attended. One of her suggestions was that if Americans gave up half of their lawn space ( for those who still have lawns) in favor of diverse plantings including both natives and ornamentals, that 20 million acres of wasted land could be recovered. This equates to the size of several national parks. According to Ms. Marinelli, taking this step could also help create continuous corridors of ecolife and biodiversity necessary for our future survival, rather than the isolated islands of dead or dying ecosystems.