No Small Potatoes

In previous posts, we discussed that expanding the diet of humans and domestic animals is both objectively difficult, as well as important for sustainable development. By no means is this situation limited to insects – other novel food items had a similarly uneasy way in. Their history is very instructive of what kind of a pushback to expect on the road towards commonplace insectivory. It is also highly encouraging because many of the current food staples were not even heard of several centuries ago.

It is difficult to imagine a food item that is more common and, to many people, less exciting than potato. It is currently the fourth largest food crop in the world after rice, wheat, and corn (maize). Although proportion of potatoes relative to other starches and vegetables in people’s diets varies among different regions based on cultural preferences and local agricultural conditions, spuds are pretty much universally accepted as something good to eat all over the world. There is a good reason for this because potatoes combine high nutritional value with large caloric output per unit of planted area. Yet, their entry into the agricultural mainstream was a slow and sometimes painful process. Several hundred years passed from the time when they left their center of origin to the time when they became a regular crop in most areas of the world. Until the 19th century, potato’s status ranged from an interesting, but not particularly important, novelty to a disgusting abomination pushed on hardworking common folk by ruling elites. Sounds familiar?

Potato was originally domesticated about 8,000 years ago near Lake Titicaca in the central Andes Mountains. This region is currently divided between the countries of Peru and Bolivia. It is not completely clear how and why that domestication happened. Wild plant species from which potato was derived produces tubers that are packed with toxic glycoalkaloids and thus unsuitable for human consumption. They are very bitter in taste and eating any meaningful amount of them literally makes a person severely ill. This, by the way, is different from something like crickets or mealworms, which are perfectly edible in their original form.

It is possible that the first attempts to partake of potato happened during a famine when there was not much less to eat. Since necessity is the mother of invention, two short-term solutions have been found by the people of the Andes. One was to mix tubers with some clay, which binds glycoalkaloids and allows them to pass through digestive system without doing damage. As a result, a dish of bitter potatoes mashed with clay has entered their cuisine. Another was to freeze-dry potatoes to turn them into chuño, which is still commonly prepared in the area and has an additional benefit of a long shelf life. Preparing chuño involved exposing tubers to several nights of freezing temperatures, then soaking them in cold water for about a month, then freezing them for another night, followed by peeling and squeezing the remaining water out, and finally drying the processed tubers under the sun for 10-15 days. While ultimately successful, this is a lengthy and involved process that requires a considerable amount of effort on top of growing and harvesting potato tubers.

A long-term solution to the low edibility of original potatoes was selective breeding towards reducing the amount of toxins in their tubers. Indigenous breeders eventually succeeded in meeting that goal, and their efforts served as a foundation for the currently existing 4,000 potato varieties. A large proportion of these varieties are still maintained in the central Andes, close to the potato’s place of origin.

Developing non-toxic potatoes undoubtably facilitated their subsequent adoption in other parts of the world. Still, by no means were they universally welcome in foreign lands. This story, however, deserves a separate blog entry.