John Reader

How the potato changed the world

In a long career, John Reader has photographed Rolling Stones' recording sessions in London and australopithecine footprints in Tanzania, and written acclaimed works such as Man on earth and Africa - biography of the continent. His new book is Propitious esculent: the potato in world history

How did people react when they heard your next book was about potato?

"The potato is the best bundle of nutrition known, but it's not easy to persuade people to take it seriously. As a topic of conversation, it inevitably evokes some degree of mirth – or a condescending smirk from those who consider the topic not just amusing, but foolish too. People simply do not believe such a commonplace commodity deserves serious attention."

When did you first take an interest in Solanum tuberosum?

"To be fair, I didn't take the potato seriously either until I lived in the far west of Ireland for 18 months in the 1960s. There, the potato was ubiquitous – in books I read (especially Cecil Woodham-Smith's The great hunger), in gardens and heaped on the plates at meal times. But even then I looked upon it mostly as an item that soaked up the gravy and filled the bellies of people who couldn't always afford anything better. It was only 20 years later that I began to appreciate the potato's true worth. Awareness of environmental issues was widespread by then. Science had long since demonstrated that people, society and culture are integral elements of the planet's ecological webs, and now some fascinating examples of human ecology were trickling through to a lay audience. I, for one, was impressed by the ecological explanations of Marvin Harris [in Cows, pigs, wars and witches, 1974] for such - apparently - irrational cultural practices as India's sacred cow and the Jews' avoidance of pork. My interest developed into a book [Man on earth, 1988] for which the academic literature provided many examples from around the world of how an environment and the staple foods it provides can influence human affairs."

In Man on earth you devoted a chapter to "the potato growers"...

"In particular, the work of Stephen Brush [Professor, Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Science, University Of California, Davis] on the economy and human ecology of an Andean valley introduced me to a fuller appreciation of the potato's merits. He and other scientists showed how astutely Andean farmers had adapted the inherent variability of the potato to their own ends, developing patterns of land-use and cultivation that not only created a sustainable way of life for themselves but also ensured the continued survival of the potato's extensive gene pool. Popular interest in the preservation of genetic diversity was growing at the time, so the potato fitted well into the theme of Man on earth. But I was struck too by the economic role the potato has played as people have moved from closed self-sustaining farming communities to societies for whom trade and economic activity have been the principal means of sustenance. That was worth a book in itself."

So, briefly, what has been the impact of the potato on world history?

"The potato played a crucial role in the development of a succession of imperial states in its cradle land – the Andes – but its influence has been most dramatically illustrated in Europe, following its introduction by the Spanish in the late 16th century. Nothing like this had happened before – anywhere. After depending upon grain for thousands of years, Europe now had a supplementary crop that not only flourished in a wider range of soil and climatic conditions but also produced four times more carbohydrate per unit of land and labour. Wherever the potato was adopted, populations grew rapidly, which in turn supplied a large and cheaply nourished labour force just at the time when trade and industry were replacing agriculture as the dominant feature of European economies. Thus the potato fuelled the Industrial Revolution, and from Europe has spread around the world – staving off hunger, improving nutrition and fuelling the development of economies."

And how do you see the role of the potato in the world today?

"Today, the potato is grown in more countries than any crop except maize and is increasingly consumed in a processed form as more and more people take to living in cities. Already, more than half the global population are city-dwellers - their higher incomes and improved standards of living have generated a taste for something more than the simple boiled potato. Of course, industrial processing favours large-scale production, but that in no way detracts from the advantages the potato offers small farmers in the developing world. They will always take the potato seriously."