Slow Potatos

The Spanish transplanted the spud to Europe in the 16th century, by way of the Canary Islands. Growing underground — bulbous, white, and strange — potatoes had image problems on the Continent at first. … The subterranean bizarreness of tuberous growth compared unfavorably to the airy, sunlit, wholesomeness of the familiar cereal grains — barley, rye, oats and wheat — that had sustained Europe for centuries.

The spud did not become a staple food in Europe until the 17th and 18th centuries, when warfare was widespread and frequent. Reader argues that this was no coincidence: Disruptions and upheavals inflicted by marauding armies changed the diet and tastes of the Continent, with massive demographic and economic consequences. When grain fields weren’t being torched or requisitioned, armies were camping on them or marching through them. It wasn’t a matter of choice but a lack of options that really dropped the potato onto Europe’s plate around 1700. While cereal grains were exposed to the ravages of war, potatoes were safely hidden in the ground and, when the tides of war receded, could be harvested and stored. This was when Europe discovered that the potato may be monotonous, but it is also extraordinarily nutritious, yielding four times more calories per acre than grain.

That is from a Post review of the book Potato.  Now my historian colleague John Nye tells me that since the potato took a lot more labor, it wasn’t really four times more productive.  And he’s pretty skeptical of the above story.  But still, I find it interesting that in what was basically a farming economy, a free more productive farm tech took so long to catch on, and even then perhaps only because of something largely incidental to its productivity.   The fact that such a thing is so hard to imagine today shows just how dramatically the industrial revolution has changed how we innovate.

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  • James Hubbard

    I don’t know if the above book discusses the fact that the potato was better suited for the cooler climate or not. The Little Ice Age has some information about the potato as well as some general commentary about farming practices during the time of the cooling.

  • FWIW, orchards produce more calories per acre than grain or potatoes. Also harvesting is easier, and the ground needs little cultivation.

  • The last sentence is sarcasm, right? I can’t tell.

    I mean, we have, in fact, changed our ways over time; I recently visited Canberra and saw the traces of an Aboriginal culture that hadn’t gotten to the level of the bow and arrow in 30,000 years, though they had quite nicely carved stone axes. That was what impressed on me the counterintuitiveness of the idea that you could progress by inventing new things.

    But in our own time, there are plenty of clever innovations that are taking ridiculous amounts of time to catch on. The Shangri-La Diet comes to mind (it works two-thirds of the time, apparently, and there are plenty of people desperate to lose weight). I can think of other examples, but that’s one of the clearer-cut ones with an individual benefit – schooling innovations benefit only mere children rather than the parents who choose them, cryonics requires deductive thought to verify, etcetera.

  • There’s hardly any evidence behind Shangri-La Diet diet compared to thousands of other similar-looking fad diets, and the book about it was published in 2006. It’s hardly a clear-cut example of “ridiculous amount of time to catch on”.

  • Some would argue the resistance to genetically modified crops and genetic engineering is a modern example which says humans can still be very short-sighted.

  • Pingback: Interessantes woanders (2009.06.07) › Immersion I/O()

  • CannibalSmith

    There are ways in which genetically modified crops do pose a threat. For example, you risk developing a plant so hardy that it conquers the world.

  • londenio

    I would like to build on Bill’s comment. I believe that much (not all) of the opposition to GM crops in Europe comes from misinformation generated and propagated by interests groups. Europeans use arguments against GM as a barrier of entry to crops from North and South America.

    It could be (i have no idea) that the potato story follows a similar mechanism. Groups with interests in cereal may have kept potatoes from taking off. I do not know how much I believe this explanation, but it is not impossible.

  • a historical example of such a case would be hemp I believe. From what I’ve read it makes for a wonderful textile. The narcotic properties were an excuse to campaign against it by the textile industries who were heavily invested in cotton processing infrastructure.

    anyone know more on the subject? I’ve been inundated with rhetoric from both sides.

  • michael vassar

    Wouldn’t you say that such large deviations from what economics might predict call the usefulness of economics as more than a very crude first approximation of reality or a normative theory deeply into question?

  • nick

    …took so long to catch on, and even then perhaps only because of something largely incidental to its productivity.

    Security is not incidental to the overall productivity of an agricultural economy, and in wartime the security of crops is certainly not incidental to the farm’s productivity. When war is common the extra work needed to harvest potatoes is a feature, not a bug. This was especially true when, as in most of history, agriculture was the main source of wealth. See also Victor Davis Hanson’s book on the security of crops in ancient Greece.

    To think about or model this properly, one has to drop the typical economic assumption of voluntary transactions.