How Potatoes Shape Our Past, Present, and Future
For such simple-seeming tubers, potatoes have been hugely influential in shaping our history. But are they likely to continue to do so in the future?
Members of the nightshade plant family, potatoes were first domesticated by farmers living in the Andes mountains near Bolivia and Peru. Some 8,000 years later, the potato has racked up quite a few achievements - including becoming the first vegetable grown in space and the fourth largest food crop in global agricultural production. Today, potato starch supplies hundreds of modern industrial uses because it is a key ingredient as a viscosifier and fluid loss agent. The starch is also an excellent adhesive for paper and cardboard, is used in oil-drilling lubricants, and in food additives.¹ What’s more, potatoes can even be used as the foundation for plant-based milk alternatives, currently produced by a Swedish company Dug Drinks.² And to humans, the potato is the third most consumed food crop in the world after rice and wheat.³
What Makes Potatoes So Popular?
Firstly, potatoes are both nutritious and easy to grow. As well as being rich in vitamin B6 and vitamin C, potatoes are a great source of carbohydrates and protein, having around twice as much protein than wheat, and requiring a third less water to grow.3 On to of this, they can provide more caloric energy per acre than maize, rice or soybeans, and there are some 5,000 varieties to choose from worldwide today.4,5 In fact, potatoes are so nutritious and easy to grow that their introduction is thought to have fuelled one-quarter of the growth in Old World population and urbanisation between 1700 and 1900.⁶
The potato might become even more important in the future as a means to avoid food shortages in some countries as populations increase. For example, in 2015 the Chinese Academy of Sciences recommended potatoes should become one of the country’s staple foods to reduce reliance on imports. Since then, China has become the world’s largest potato producer, producing about 22% of world total output.⁷
Farmers planting potatoes in Linyi, China. Recent government policy in China has worked to popularise potato as a staple food, leading to a rapid growth of domestic production and consumption. (Getty/Fang Dehua)
Why Breeding Potatoes Is Surprisingly Difficult
Potatoes run on particularly complicated genetics. Their cells contain four sets of chromosomes. For comparison, we only have two sets. This makes the process of breeding potatoes incredibly difficult to control, since every crossbreeding could produce a massive range of possible genetic mixes. This is especially the case as desirable traits like size or flavour are usually controlled by groups of genes.⁸
The potato genome is so complex that the complete sequence was only announced in March 2022.⁸ During the Green Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, scientists and plant breeders were able to produce high yielding varieties of many staple crops - but not potatoes. And so efforts to breed new varieties with higher yields have been largely unsuccessful because of the genetic complexity.⁹
For this reason, potatoes aren’t farmed from seeds. Instead, they are effectively cloned from existing potatoes, in the same way that your bag of potatoes from a shop will start to sprout shoots and eventually genetically identical tubers.
Why Potatoes Are Surprisingly Vulnerable
There’s a reason most living organisms in nature don’t reproduce by cloning. The low genetic diversity of farmed potatoes means that if a crop has no resistance to a certain disease, all the tubers will be destroyed should that disease appear. The Irish famine of the 1840s was caused by a fungal disease - late blight - which almost wiped out the entire potato crop for years, leading to around a million deaths and heavy human emigration. Elsewhere in Europe, millions of people also starved.10 Late blight is still a scourge today, ruining up to 30% of the crop in developing countries.⁹
Today, climate change is causing rapid shifts in weather patterns around the globe, leading to questions as to how these crops of identical potato plants will fare against rising temperatures, changing soil conditions, or changing rainfall.
Potatoes are farmed from tubers, rather than seeds. This means crops lack genetic diversity and are vulnerable to disease.
Making Potatoes for an Uncertain Future
Despite over 5000 varieties existing, only a handful of breeds are cultivated for supermarkets and mass consumption. It’s hoped we can make new, climate-resilient breeds of potato by looking at the genetics of other potato breeds.
In Cusco, Peru, some 16,000 feet above sea level, exists a living museum of native potatoes.¹¹ In the Sacred Valley of the Incas, over 1300 varieties are cultivated, where temperature conditions can rapidly range from warm to freezing. The potato breeds here aren’t all edible, but with special preparation some varieties can be eaten. Many contain toxic compounds intended to protect the potato against predators. But within these varieties exists the genetic diversity of resilience against extreme temperatures, granted through thousands of years of breeding and natural evolution. Slowly, this diversity is being revealed by using the new potato genome and modern genetic research.¹¹ Extra steps are also being taken to preserve the breeds. In 2017, 650 varieties were stored in the global seed vault in Norway. While the International Potato Centre (CIP) stores over 4600 types of potato and has the world’s largest potato in vitro gene bank.¹¹ CIP have also been developing potatoes which can survive the dry, salty soils of the Peruvian desert, which may one day be cultivated on Mars.¹²
A farmer works on the selection and classification of potatoes after harvest in the Potato Park, Peru. The Potato Park is a unique seed bank housing the richest diversity of potatoes on the planet. (Getty/Leonardo Fernandez)
Smaller efforts include the Salty Potato Farm in the Netherlands, where farmers are trying to identify and cultivate breeds which are resistant to salty water.¹³ And it’s not just a pipe dream - since 2020, these particular potatoes have been sold in Dutch supermarkets. The salt-resistant potato is very valuable because some 2,000 hectares of farmland are degraded by salt every day. And this is another problem exacerbated by rising sea levels and reduced rainfall due to climate change.¹⁴
Globally, it looks like our future will include more potatoes - and for the better. Growing and preserving potato varieties can present a constant battle, but what innovations could support the potato industry in the future? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Banner photo: Esra Karakose/Getty