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The Humble Potato and the Dangers of Monoculture

Recently I watch the documentary The Botany of Desire on Netflix, based on the Michael Pollan book of the same name. Of the four plants they focussed on, one was the potato. And as I was planning a trip to visit a potato vodka distillery, I decided to take notes.

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The Origin of the Potato

Potatoes originate in the Andes mountain in South America and were first domesticated 8000 years ago. There are more than 5000 potato varieties in the Andes region.

The potato in the wild is poisonous, but over time people bred out the more poisonous ones. Early Peruvians grew many varieties of potatoes depending on the altitude/direction of the hill.

Potatoes were grown by Incas. Spanish conquistadores brought them back to Europe.

The Potato in Europe

In Europe potatoes grew well in poor soils in northern countries, wet areas where grains were hit or miss. The potato provides an immense amount of food per acre. It may have helped the industrial revolution to happen, as less people were needed in the fields to grow it.

The Irish planted almost exclusively one strain of potato. In 1845 a wind-spread fungal spore brought by a ship spread across the whole country and turned the potatoes black within weeks. The Irish potato famine lasted for 3 years and killed many people. Monoculture = bad.

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The Potato in America

Each year Americans consumer 7.5 billion pounds of French fries. Russett-Burbank is the potato variety used to make those fries everywhere in the world- and in particular by McDonald's. Pollan says “Monocultures on the plate lead to monocultures on the land.”

When you have a monoculture it essentially stops evolution of that plant, while the pests who want to prey on the plants continue to evolve. And once one finds a way to get one plant, it have access to all of them.

Monsanto has genetically engineered potatoes to kill the potato beetle, its main pest. People started planting them, and McDonald’s used them in the late 1990s but after consumer pressure and a potential PR problem, they phased them out. This effectively killed the genetically engineered potato. That said, corn, soybeans, and cotton are all genetically engineered by Monsanto.

But when growing a monoculture, you have to choose between using lots of pesticides or using genetically engineered crops. The solution, says Pollan, is not to grow monocultures.

I fear for agave.

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