The potato in Europe

The potato (solanum tuberosum) originates from the high regions of the Andes in South America. Some 150 species are known. Its edible part is the "tuber", the enlarged end of the underground stem.

Potatoes are known to have been in cultivation in the altiplano of the Andes by 200 AD or earlier, and the high Andes plains are still the heartland of potatoes - over 60 different varieties are usually on sale on any Andean market in today's Bolivia.

Shortly after 1550 the Spanish colonialists brought the potato to Europe, where it was initially planted only for decorative purposes. But the ease of cultivation and the nutricious value made the potato an ideal staple food for the poor, and governments forcibly introduced the planting of potato crops.

The Irish economy became totally dependent on the potato before 1700, promoted by English foreign rule, and generations of Irish peasant families survived exclusively on nothing but potatoes. In Prussia Frederick the Great sent troops into the countryside after the Seven Year's War (1756 - 1763) to force the peasants to plant potatoes.

In the years 1845 and 1846 the Irish potato crop became affected by the potato blight (Phytophtora infestans) and failed completely, leaving millions of peasants without means of subsistence. More than 500,000 Irish died and one million (more than one third of the population) was forced to emigrate during the "Great Potato Famine". The plight of the Irish was exacerbated by the refusal of the English government during 1845 to send food relief available in England, on the argument that giving food hand-outs runs counter to the laws of the market economy, which requires goods to be exchanged by value and not to be given away.

Vincent van Gogh: The Potato Eaters (1885)

Image: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; public domain (Wikipedia)