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Impact of Potato Production

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  • Qingxin Fu

The Columbian Exchange: Potato

The discovery of the Americas brought a large exchange of people, diseases and crops. Corn, peppers, tomatoes, cassava, cocoa, rubber and tobacco were some of the crops introduced to the Old World. Coffee, oranges, bananas and sugar cane were introduced to the Americas. One of the most important crops brought to the Old World was the potato. Potatoes, as a substitute for wheat or rice, provided peasants a new source of calories. Potato was originated South America and then introduced to the Old World; the crop also raised political, economic and social consequences, such as late blight, Irish Famine, and sudden population increase in China, from its production.

Domesticated potatoes were once all belong to one botanical species, Solanum tuberosum; it included thousands of varieties that had diversity in size, shape, color and other characteristics. The potato was first domesticated in the South America Andes, then the Puritans who took Mayflower arrived the land and the First Nations taught them about potatoes. Then the sailors went back to Europe and people started to plant potatoes in Spain, England, France, and many other countries in Europe. Later, potatoes were spread into Africa by the colonists. The crop was once believe to be poisonous by the local farmers who refused to plant them. However, the colonists persuaded the farmers and introduced potatoes as a low-price and high-production crop in substitute of wheat and rice.

After potatoes were widely spread through Europe and Africa, they were introduced into East Asia. Following its introduction into China at the end of Ming Dynasty, potatoes became one of the most popular crops in the country. Ironically, despite of the distance of South America and North America, North America is the last region in the world which planted potatoes and established them as a type of crop. Potatoes were widely spread out as a crop throughout the world and planted in every country. They took a great portion of crop production in every country every year, even nowadays.

As potatoes spread out and planted a vast amount of them in most countries, they also brought political consequences with them. Late blight was a type of disease that came from growing potatoes. It was caused by the fungus-like pathogen, Phytophthora infestans. It could infect and destroy the leaves, stems, fruits, and tubers of potato plants.

Irish Famine, was caused by Late blight which killed tons of potatoes. However, British also played an important role in Irish Famine. As John Mitchel said at the time, “The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.” In 1845, Ireland over-depended on the potatoes as their main source of crops; however, late blight killed all production of potatoes and caused famine. At that time, Britain’s rule over Ireland had been brutal and unfair because of deeply racist attitudes toward Ireland. From Cromwell’s massacres to the Penal Laws to the “Plantations” that pushed Irish off their homeland. The political consequences of those attitudes were absolutely merciless and cruel. British refused to provide any source of crops and even blocked international disaster relief from other countries to prevent Irish getting potatoes or other types of crops due to political issues.

Although the government of Sir Robert Peel bought a quantity of American corn and sold them in Ireland, but it wasn’t even close to enough. Then after Peel lost power, free market could not provide food and more Irish died to the famine. Charles Trevelyan, the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, shut down the food depots in Ireland that had been selling Peel’s corn and rejected another ship of corn that had been already headed for Ireland. He explained that he planned to prevent the Irish from becoming “habitually dependent” on the British government and also believed that Irish famine was God’s judgment to teach Irish people a lesson. More and more Irish peasants died due to the Famine and disease arose among them. Because of British mismanagement, and perhaps intent, in 1840, Ireland’s population was at 8.5 million, with England and Wales at 15.9 million. Ireland’s population continued to fall until 1970s. Nowadays, Ireland is approximately at 6 million, and England and Wales at 52 million.

Potatoes also brought economic consequences to people; Irish Famine in the middle of the 19th century was the best illustrated example where Irish people depended on the potato for their primary source of calories. For millions of farmers, the only crop they planted was the potato since the only tool necessary for farming potatoes was a sharp stick, and those people could not afford any more than that. These Irish farmers lost all their cultivars and made zero profit from their expenses, because of potato late blight. Then a great famine exploded among Irish. The economy was ruined and a million died of starvation; about two million immigrated, usually to the US or Canada.

Potato blight was a very serious economic threat in the potato and tomato production systems across the world. It was extremely hard to measure losses due to this plant disease because there were other factors present as well. Although in some areas, only local experts who speculate from field tests or visited farmers fields could estimate crop loss caused by potato late blight. While this approach was not accurate and imperfect, it could over-exaggerating or missed a portion of losses. However, it was often the only method available for some parts of the areas. In some circumstances, economic losses due the potato late blight could be analyzed systematically.

For one event of late blight occurring in the Columbia basin of Washington in the US, the average of fungicide required per field varied from 5.1 to 12.3 depending on the plant species. Total per acre of field required expenses ranged from $100 to $230 dollars and the total cost of dealing with late blight was estimated to have arrived at $30 million dollars threshold. In a national evaluation, the economic impact of potato late blight in all areas of the United States was estimated to be about $210 million. A mean production loss of 15% was estimated by the international Potato Center which made a global estimation of late blight losses in developing countries. This meant that a total production loss in developing countries to be approximately $2.75 billion dollars. One of the important ways of viewing the economic effects of potato late blight was by looking the fungicide usage, which is usually easier and liable way to measure than crop loss. Approximately $77 million are spent on fungicides per season throughout the US.

From these facts, potato production costs more than just equipment, seeds, and. Fungicide was one of the most important and necessary item for farmers to plant potatoes and each season expenses on farming increased as profit fell because of potato late blight. Farmers might spend way more money on how to prevent late blight than they would expected. Ironically, potatoes were meant to be cheap and easy to plant, but potato blight made the production rate to suffer and caused countries which heavily relied on potato as their main source of crop to suffer economic losses and cause Famine with a very high chance.

Another example of social consequences about potato production was Chinese population growth after the middle period of the Qianlong reign (1735 – 1796). During that time, population increased dramatically and an urgent need to increase grain yields had become a big problem and it led to a rapid spread of potato production throughout China since it could be well fit to local environment. As the population continuously growing, society became a very unfamiliar place for Chinese people. The role of the individual was nearly invisible based on a very high population. This could led people to disconnect from their society.

Despite of all the political and economic consequences caused by late blight, potato production also raised social consequences. They were best presented in the Irish Famine in the middle of the 19th century. Larger scale potato production continuously provided surpluses that supported an increase of population in both agricultural and industrial regions.

Potatoes were planted widely because they could survive in most climates, altitudes, and soils and could be more highly prolific than grains in both good and bad years. Agricultural workers across Europe continuously raised potatoes production on small pieces of lands to gain food that was cheaper than wheat. Grains and potatoes, together with the flesh and other products of a few farm animals, provided an economically feasible and nutritionally adequate diet. Estimations were made that agricultural land assigned to plant potatoes provided three times the food nutrient value of land planted with wheat, so that more peasants could be maintained on a given quantity of farms. Even after farmers were fed and the stock replaced, more excess was left for the owner of the land.

The most obvious disadvantage of the potato was that stocks could not be saved or carried over a year because the tubers would rot. By contrast, people were likely to plant potatoes over wheat due to these reasons which caused them to over-rely on potato production. When potato blight happened, a high demand on food could not be satisfied with wheat and other cultivars; thus, a famine occurred.

Potatoes provided cheap provisions for growing industrial populations. Low-priced food supplies enabled industrialists to keep wages low. In all areas, there had been resistance of adopting potatoes for more than three centuries. Because the tuber had been variously seen as poisonous and unacceptable food source; some thought that it was forage for animals like pigs, others as famine food for refugees, but those preconception gradually disappeared as potatoes become one of the most popular and affordable crop.

At the same time, the increasing dependence on potatoes in Ireland draw out the devastating predictions of famine for the potatoes that were already proving to be defenseless against multiple plant diseases. Irish peasants who depended on potatoes put themselves at a high risk because the potatoes could not be stored for more than a year, neither transported easily into regions which exploded famine. Because of those areas with such populations, they were also lack of political power and economically dependent on another country; Irish were helpless during the great famine.

For all these reasons, although Ireland experienced a horrible blight that destroyed all potato crops; it could be seen that the Irish famine was more likely to be an artificial disaster that could have been prevented or saved by a good timed British emergency relief and millions of Irish lives would be saved.

In conclusion, a large portion of people, diseases and crops were exchanged through the findings of the Americas. Crops, such as tobacco, rubber, cocoa, cassava, tomatoes, potatoes, corns, and peppers, were introduced into the Old Word; while coffee, oranges, banana and sugar cane were introduced into the Americas. Potato was one of the most important crops in the World that was introduced into the Old world. As a substitute for wheat, potatoes provided billions of people food to survive worldwide. However, diseases also rose among potato plants and destroyed millions of plants and caused famine which killed millions of people. The origin of potatoes was first found to be domesticated by South America Andes and learned by Europeans, and then it was spread into Africa, Asian and at last North America. Potatoes also caused political, social and economic issues from its production, such as late blight, the Great Famine, and increase in Chinese population; these issues had brought some serious consequences that even lasted until modern days.


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