Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere


Solanum Tuberosum

From humble beginnings the potato has risen to become one of the most important food crops and is now cultivated in almost every part of the world. It gave rise to empires and has been both acclaimed as the fuel for the industrial revolution and decried as the cause of devastating famines. Currently, potatoes are the fourth most important food crop in the world, behind wheat, rice and corn and production continues to rise as demand grows worldwide.

Potatoes are tuberous plants of the Belladonna family (Solanum). All cultivated potatoes are categorized as Solanum Tuberosum, but a wide variety of subspecies exist (Messer). They are a high yielding crop which provides a good source of calories, protein and various nutrients.

South American Origins

Wild potato varieties are native to a large portion of the Americas from the southwest of North America to southern Chile, but it was in the central andean region where they were first domesticated about 6-10,000 years ago (Spooner). Researchers have narrowed the region in which the potato first came into use to an area including southern Peru, northern Chile, and western Bolivia. One researcher believes that cultivation may have originated at a single source just north of Lake Titicaca in Peru (Spooner). From this original source, a wide array of landrace varieties were developed with varying shapes, colors, textures, climatic adaptations and nutritional qualities. It is thought that these varieties have crossed with wild varieties which has allowed farmers to maintain a wide genetic diversity (Messer).

The Inca empire was built upon the combination of potato cultivation in the highlands and the cultivation of grains such as maize and quinoa in the lowlands (Messer). Vast potato storage and processing facilities have been excavated high in the andes further demonstrating their importance as a food crop for South American civilizations (Spooner). Traditionally these potatoes would have been distributed in processed forms such as chuño and papa seca. Chuño is produced through a freeze drying process, and papa seca is made from potatoes which have been dried and ground into a fine flour. Both products may be reconstituted with boiling water and added to soups, or eaten as a side (Messer).

In recent years, both the consumption of traditional potato products and the cultivation of traditional potato varieties is on the decline in South America. This is due to a combination of factors including market forces, social perceptions, and changes in social structures as a result of industrialization. Modern potato varieties which were developed in Europe and which produce a higher yield and a more uniform product are the preferred varieties on the world market largely because they are easy to process and provide the consistent flavor and texture that consumers like. Additionally, the time and labor associated with the production of traditional potato products is shifting to wage labor and the cash economy, and at the same time, these foods are increasingly perceived as peasant foods. As a result the role of potato products in the South American diet is slowly being supplanted by other foods such as pasta and rice.

Potatoes in Europe

Potatoes first arrived in Spain around 1570, and quickly spread to other parts of Europe including England and Italy (Messer). However, because they were perceived as famine foods and due to negative folk beliefs about them, adoption of the potato as a food source was slow in many parts of Europe. These beliefs included associations with leprosy, and sexual promiscuity (Messer). Over the next few centuries, though, the virtues of the potato won out over these negative perceptions and they became an important part of the European food system (Messer).

Potatoes were credited with ending famine in Europe by the early nineteenth century, although effective distribution structures were probably more influential (Messer). Soon afterward, though, the perils of relying on a single food crop with a limited genetic diversity became apparent. In the mid-nineteenth century, Europe was affected by the “late blight” which virtually wiped out potato production in many regions, most notably in Ireland (Messer). The blight caused widespread famine as the primary source of nutrition was devastated and people were left with nothing to replace it. This event had dramatic social consequences including the emigration of Irish peasants to the United States.

After the invasion of the blight, attempts were made to improve the genetic diversity of European potatoes by introducing other varieties from South America. From these arose the “Early Rose,” “Russet Burbank,” “Bintje,” and “King Edward” varieties (Messer). As a result potato cultivation continued to grow throughout Europe where it is still one of the most important food crops.

Modern Potatoes

Over the last century, the industrialization of agriculture has brought about changes in potato cultivation and consumption as well. Demand for potatoes has risen dramatically as a result of increasing consumption of highly processed foods such as chips and fries which are marketed through fast food restaurants (Messer). This has also pushed the market toward more uniform varieties that provide a consistent taste and texture preferred by consumers and away from the traditional varieties that have been grown for centuries (Messer). Thus the genetic diversity of the potato has declined in spite of its growing popularity, and this trend has only increased as a result of the introduction of genetically modified potatoes (Messer).

This dependence on a limited range of potato strains creates the potential for a replay of the famines of the 19th century. In response to this, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) has initiated the Centro Internacional de la Papa (CIP). The purpose of the CIP is to maintain the genetic diversity of the potato and to strategically introduce useful characteristics into new cultivars (Messer). They maintain a collection of over 5,000 cultivars and 1,500 wild potato varieties in their World Potato Collection (Messer).

Also, in reaction to the mass produced potatoes that have dominated for decades, American consumers have begun to demand what are referred to as “heirloom” varieties. These include gold and purple potatoes and smaller potatoes with varying flavors. This may indicate a trend back towards the more traditional cultivars and a wider genetic diversity (Messer).

Nutritional Value

The potato is a highly nutritious food, containing a healthy supply of carbohydrates, proteins, and other nutrients. One large potato provides 284 calories, 7.45 grams of protein, 64 grams of carbohydrates (mostly as starch), and 8 grams of fiber, but very little fat (USDA). However, different potato varieties contain different nutrients, and these are often used in combination with other crops to provide the full nutritional spectrum.

Links and Resources

CIP – Centro Internacional de la Papa (International Potato Center)

World Potato Atlas (CIP)

“Potato, Flesh and Skin, Raw Nutritional Data.” USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference 2008. 7 Nov 2008

Spooner, David M., and WIlbert L.A. Hetterscheid. “Origins, Evolution, and Group Classification of Cultivated Potatoes.” Darwin's Harves: New Approaches to the Origins, Evolution and Conservation of Crops. Ed. Timothy J. Motley, Nyree Zerega, & Hugh Cross. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2006. 285-307. 3 Nov 2008 harvest total.pdf.

Messer, Ellen. Potatoes (White). The Cambridge World History of Food. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. p. 187-201