Once the cooked potatoes are served on the platter, the peasants huddle around a weak lantern to enjoy their meager meal. The portrayal of Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters, connoting the promises of hunger-relief through manual labor: the cultivation of the humble spud. Like so, humanity always has interests in food security and promoting sustainable agriculture has been considered as a necessity. Of all the plants that mankind has turned into crops, the potato ranks fourth with its worldwide importance behind wheat, corn, and rice.
However, this miracle tuber also had trouble finding a foothold, as European civilians of the 18th century remained inhospitable toward this peculiar new plant from South America. The justifications to refuse this root crop included the following: potatoes were a member of the nightshade family; potatoes were believed to be contributor of leprosy and immorality; potatoes were staples of uncivilized and conquered races. As the sinister has past, evolution of potatoes needs to be checked, having progressed to this point of time. Retracing this vegetable’s legacy, The Argus plans to clarify whether this crop really was the Devil’s apple or the Angel’s.
1. Hedge against famine
During the scientific expedition to Patagonia aboard HMS Beagle, British naturalist Charles Darwin writes in his log, “It is remarkable that the same plant could be found on the sterile mountains of Central Chile, where a drop of rain does not fall for more than six months, and within the damp forests of the southern islands.” Darwin speculated on the endemism of potatoes, and discovered that this fine specimen grows in abundance under an unquestionably erratic climate. Such being was proved through the comparison of water and energy requirements, along with land size certain crop requires.
Figure 1 and 2 above implies that in terms of production per 1,000 liters of water and hectares of land required to produce a ton, potato crops stand out among four major crops. That is to say, with only the potatoes produced in 1,000 pyeong, 1/24 of HUFS Seoul Campus, you can feed 10 adults for a year.
Also mentioned in his paper “The Potato’s Contribution to Population and Urbanization: Evidence from a Historical Experiment” (2011), Nathan Nunn, the Professor of Economics at Harvard University declares, “According to my most conservative estimates, the introduction of the potato accounts for approximately one-quarter of the growth in Old World population and urbanization between 1700s and 1900s. Using anthropometric measurements of French soldiers born in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, I also found that potatoes increased adult height. For villages that were completely suitable for potato cultivation, the introduction of the potato increased average adult heights by about half an inch.”
The diffusion of potatoes especially had a tremendous impact in Europe, as the potatoes’ usage as military provisions permitted a handful of Northern European nations to have the whip hand over rival countries. Germany, in particular, was in shortage of area to grow wheat but the blessings of potatoes indulged Germans to make a well-off living just by farming in strictly confined small garden plots. During the Potato War, the name given by the Prussians to the War of the Bavarian Succession in 1778-79, and World War Ⅰ and Ⅱ, the soldiers extracted sugar, baked bread and fermented potatoes into a fuel to optimize its use. Plus, as they were easy to grow, so simple it was to prepare: dig, heat─by just throwing them into a pot or fire without any elaborate processes!
2. Nutritious Delicacy
From a nutritious standpoint, the potato is superior to other crops in that it contains the three most important macromolecules for life: carbohydrates, protein, and nucleic acid. Frequent warfare of the past inevitably unmasked these values by forcing both soldiers and the poor colonials into a diet that consisted almost exclusively of a sole article.
In the case of a corn-dependent diet, it was infamous for developing early symptoms of ailment named pellagra, a chronic niacin deficiency that brings on four progressively catastrophic “D”s: diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia, and death. However, the monoculture experiment of potatoes in Ireland worked as the best package of nutrition to feed the growing population. Lim Yeong-seok, the Professor of Bio-health technology in Kangwon National University stated, “Under British rule, the chance to redeem Irish from misery rested at the potatoes. Its characteristics as a watery root crop─to dig them out one by one─had the marauding soldiers leave them out when they burnt all the other staple crops colonials were dependent to.” Luckily, the potatoes were an excellent source of Vitamin C, containing 36 milligrams in each 100 milligrams and this is three times higher than that of an apple. In other words, consuming two potatoes delivers 100 milligrams of vitamins, the recommended daily intake for a grown man.
In the 1770s, Dr. Richard Budd, physician-apothecary at a London orphanage school observed that when children ate potatoes, scurvy normally disappeared. Scarcity of potatoes resulted in the opposite. Since many people could not afford fresh fruit, and urban poor had no accessibility to orchards or farms, the potatoes may have provided them cheap Vitamin C. In addition, this nutritious tuber even contains 485 milligrams of potassium per 100 grams, which is 16 times that of rice. This helps counter the effects of sodium, and may help lower your blood pressure. In short, Cecil Adams’s article “The Amazing Potato Diet” in 2008 concludes, with an exception of molybdenum, eating eight pounds of potatoes─approximately 24 potatoes a day and drinking one gallon of milk daily would provide all of the essential nutrients for an average size young man.
3. Human life support in the future
Abrupt climate change and shortage of farmland is not only imminent but is already here. Earthians see a future in potatoes, namely our labor-savor, the earth bean, as ensuring food for the threat of constant starvation. In 2014, the UN Institute for Water, Environment and Health proposed that every day for more than 20 years, an average of 2,000 hectares of irrigated land in arid and semi-arid areas across 75 countries has been degraded by salt.
Currently, an area the size of France, about 62 million hectares is affected. This is calculated to be 20 percent of the world’s irrigated lands, up from 45 million hectares in the early 1990s. To make the land cultivatable, since 2015, a small farm placed off Netherland’s northern coast run by one research institute named Texel has been breeding potatoes in salt-spoiled soils. These salt tolerant potatoes will potentially transform the lives of thousands of farmers and 250 million people who are under-nourished living around salt-afflicted soil. Taking it a step further, in 2016, NASA announced that they are planning to develop Red Planet spuds for deep-space cultivation. Their new experiment with the International Potato Center is to test 65 of the 4,500 varieties of Peruvian potatoes in a small plot of land. This is to imitate a version of the Martian climate to find the minimum conditions for potatoes to survive. The preliminary results are positive, and the imagination of 2015 blockbuster movie The Martian, depicting NASA astronaut Mark Watney’s survival through improvising a potato farm on Martian ground, is about to be materialized in real life.
Not only in food supplies, but as an environmentally-friendly alternative to the use of disposable plastic, “Potato Plastic” is on rise, winning 2018 James Dyson Award. The inventor Swedish design student Pontus Tornqvist, announces that this vegetable plastic is a biodegradable material that consists only of potato starch and water, the naturally-occurring substances. While the conservative last 450 years, in only two months, it will decompose to nutrients for the soil when it ends up in the nature. The process is a kind of thermoplastic, starting from heating until the liquid thickens then being placed it into a mold to harden into shape. If these goods turn out into large quantity production in the near future, three million tons of plastic forks, knives, and straws that are used in cafes and fast-food chains will soon be replaced with potatoes.
1. The objection from Homo economicus
Staple though it is today, the lowly potato has always been a substitute for cereal crop, confronted with plenty of constraints in its utilization. Potatoes may have been a savor of men in wartime but mainly, sugar was made by sugar-cane, bread by flour, and the alcohol by corn starch. Omer Moav, the author of “The Emergence of Hierarchies and States: Productivity vs. Appropriability”(2018) elaborates, “Cereal grains can be stored, and due to their seasonality, have to be stored in order to provide year-round nutrition. The relative ease of confiscating stored cereals, their high energy density and their durability, enhances their appropriability and therefore explains the formation of hierarchical institutions and states. Precisely the opposite, other important staple crops, mainly roots and tubers like potatoes, are typically perishable, non-seasonal─70 to 120 days enough to reach maturity, have high water content and low energy density, and thus are less appropriable.”
Park In-myoung, the professor of Oriental food and culinary arts in Youngsan University also adds, “As a potato is 80 percent water─a large portion compared to rice and wheat at about 10 to 13 percent and 20 to 25 percent each─it is vulnerable in storage. High water content supports the growth of bacteria, yeast, and mold, and results in an exponential increase in decomposition rates. What is more, the moisture reduces milling efficiency, and even breaks up the machine. Plus, the milled quantity of the potato starch is relatively low.”
Furthermore, according to Michael Pollan, the author of The Botany of Desire, potatoes exempted the potato-eater from the discipline of the economy, by excluding one from the civilized process of bread making. He says, “Political economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo regarded the market as a sensitive mechanism for adjusting the size of the population to the demand for labor, and the price of bread was that mechanism’s regulator. When the price of wheat rose, people had to curb both of their animal appetites and so produced fewer babies. The problem with ‘the potato system’ is that, under it, the Homo economicus who adjusts his behavior to the algebra of need is replaced by a far less rational actor─Homo appetitus. … Since the Irishman grew and ate his own potatoes, and since they could not easily be stored or traded, they never became commodities and were therefore, like him, subject to no authority but nature’s own.”
2. Notorious Devil’s Apple
Nightshade species like potatoes contain solanine, a glycoalkaloid poison that has pesticidal properties, and it is one of the plant’s natural defenses from being eaten. Tubers naturally produce this poison in their leaves, stems, and shoots. When tubers are exposed to sunlight, they even turn in green and increase glycoalkaloid production. Per 100 grams of potato, the average content of solanine is estimated to be 2 to 13 milligrams, too little to cause any toxic effects. The toxic dose of a grown adult is from 20 to 30 milligrams of solanine and fatal dose is from 400 to 500 milligrams. In other words, till you stuff 10 kilograms of raw potatoes into your mouth, it is alright. The poisoned victims usually recover fully from the main symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea within 2 to 24 hours, but may result in fatalities when the victim is undernourished or does not receive suitable treatment. As so, in early Europe, the potatoes were met with initial suspicion, being named as “The Devil’s Apples.”
Solanine is even heat-stable, and not water soluble. Cooking in hot water does not help that much as it decomposes at over 285°C. In a closer inspection of this high temperature processing, reducing sugars, such as glucose and fructose, react with free amino acids in a series of non-enzymatic reactions given the umbrella name of the Malliard reaction. The reaction results in plethora of products many of which impart color, aroma and flavor. However, it also gives rise to some undesirable contaminants, including acrylamide. This acrylamide forms when the amino acid that participates in the reaction is asparagine. Margin of exposure to acrylamide has been shown to be carcinogenic and to have neurological and reproductive effects in rodent toxicology studies. Dr. Park adds that, “Since the starch in potatoes is rapidly digested, its glycemic index (GI), a measure of how much a particular food increases your blood sugar level, is high 80s or low 90s─almost as high as that of glucose alone, which is 100. Potatoes have a high GI rate as their carbohydrates are quickly broken down into sugar, causing blood sugar and insulin levels to rise rapidly. This, in turn, increases fat storage and the risk of obesity and diabetes─at least in theory.”
3. Genetically Modified Food
While monoculture has its place for profitability, it also has potential to cause irreversible damage to the ecological system. The once dominant Lumper variety is an example, Ireland’s favorite potato before the Great Famine. In the early 1800s, it held a disproportionate share of Irish potato crop, and the lack of genetic variability turned potatoes into inedible slime: the blight. Famine ensued, as three quarters of an Irishman’s caloric intake came from the Lumper, and within three years one eighth Ireland people died of starvation. Dr. Lim explains, “The mass production of Lumpers was propagated for vegetative reproduction. Sexual propagation of potato can also be accomplished by planting its true seed, a useful process in crop improvements, but a high variability exists between this seed and it does not ensure a uniform, market-ready crop.”
Nowadays, potatoes are even commercially controlled by being genetically engineered with three new traits: disease resistance for farmers, no tuber discoloration for processors, and reduced food-carcinogenicity for consumers. In accordance to that, potatoes’ most conserved traits have been silenced and the interconnected gene functions cause a ripple effect. Dr. Pollan says, “According to the theory, which is based on classical Darwinism, the Bt crops add so much Bt toxin to the environment on such a continuous basis that the target pests will evolve resistance to it; the only real question is how long this will take to happen. Before now, resistance hasn’t been a worry, because conventional Bt sprays break down quickly in sunlight and farmers spray only when confronted with a serious infestation. Resistance is essentially a form of coevolution that occurs when a given population is threatened with extinction. That pressure quickly selects for whatever chance mutation will allow the species to change and survive. Through natural selection, then, one species’ attempt at total control can engender its own nemesis.” In addition, silencing the “melanin gene” PPO, causes potatoes not to express bruise, and also weakens potatoes from pathogens, eventually requiring more pesticide. They still get damaged much like how humans bleed when cut, but the browning reaction─basically a scab─does not happen.
Plus, beware of french-fries from McDonald’s, where instead of acrylamide you will ingest pesticides from genetically modified organism (GMO) potatoes. Recall how they are cooked immediately from raw ones while other best-known GMO crops such as corns and soy are brought as processed products into the market. Recently, Simplot, one of the largest potato processor in the world addressed concerns by gaining regulatory approval of GMO potatoes from Korea’s Ministry of Food and Drug Safety. Be warned that as these novel life forms are released to the real life market, there is no call-back from the lab.
A renowned English archivist Henry Hobhouse writes in his book Seeds of Change that the five plants─quinine that alleviated the debilitating effects of malaria, cotton that fueled the American Civil War, sugarcane that was inaugurated as a lucrative crop from West India, tea that impacted Europeans’ beverage culture, and the potatoes that afforded mankind an inexpensive and near-effortless food crop to sustain the poor─played as powerful historical, political catalysts. Monotonous agriculture of potatoes, especially, unwittingly brought about the agro-industrial complex and bred commoners strongly, but also caused an awful famine and blight. The Argus hopes our readers to realize that the dramatic ramification of potato crops has depended and more importantly will depend on how we human species appropriately use them.
By Kwak Hyun-jeong
Associate Editor of Theory & Critique Section