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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.

Mexico with Julio Bermejo 049


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There's already a soybean vodka (haven't tried it) but I'm really rather partial to the potato spirits. Let's hope the lowly spud continues to thrive.


"But when growing a monoculture, you have to choose between using lots of pesticides or using genetically engineered crops."

Sorry Camper, but this is a statement which is FALSE and completely MISLEADING... The way you wrote this sentence, suggest that GMOs do not use pesticides or use less pesticides than traditional crops... it has been seriously questioned and even proven to be the opposite...

Genetically engineered crops (GMOs), most of which are created by Monsanto, are actually created not for your benefit, but for Monsanto's benefit. They are created so that farmers can spray more herbicides... They are what we called "round-up ready".... Monsanto, which originally is a chemical company, famous for the agent orange, manufactures patented GMOs to sell BOTH the seed and the pesticide.

Without being GMO, the corn, soy, coton can NOT resist pesticides like "Round up herbicides"..... The goal of the GMO is actually to enable to spray some other product (The Round Up), which was not possible before....

Nowadays, more and more weeds which have become resistant to any spraying of the round up, which makes farmers spray more pesticides than before.... (Same problem than bacteria becoming resistant to the drugs given in industrial cattle farming)...

Last but not least GMOs are diminishing the variety of seeds available for growing. Where you have many sorts of corn available in Mexico, the US tends to grown mainly a couple of variety. I am not even talking of the problems caused by contaminations of the "organic" crops by the Genetically modified ones...

GMOs do not bring any advantage at all for the final consumer... and very little for the farmers....

Maybe one the reasons many european countries banned GMOs on their soils...

Just some sources below:

Benbrook, Charles M., “Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Eight Years,” BioTech InfoNet, November 2003.

"It turns out that far from reducing pesticides, GM crops are a major reason for the massive expansion of pesticide use in recent years. This should not be a surprise. The majority of GE crops are "Roundup Ready," designed to survive heavy and repeated spraying with Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller. Roundup Ready crops have dramatically increased Roundup use, and spawned a growing epidemic of Roundup-resistant weeds, which now infest millions of acres of American cropland. Killing resistant weeds requires more herbicides. How much more? Dr. Benbrook's study - based on official USDA data - shows that GE crops have increased the overall use of weedkillers in the U.S. by a massive 383 million pounds since 1996."

"We should all know what Monsanto and other companies are selling, and its not a solution to world hunger or a cleanser for the environment. What they are really selling is what they make best: chemicals. The biotech giants - Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer and Dow - are, without exception, major pesticide manufacturers. They have each bought up sizeable chunks of the world's seed supply, and are using biotechnology to make those seeds sell their pesticides for them."

"The development of crops engineered to tolerate glyphosate spurred a surge in use of the chemical -- an extra 383 million pounds were sold from 1996 to 2008, according to a report released by The Organic Center (TOC), the Union for Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the Center for Food Safety (CFS)."

Finally, "the world according to Monsanto" and watch the complete movie....


Otherwise, I completely agree on the risks of Monoculture and Mono-Seed agriculture...

This should be a major cause for concern for the future of our food... far too risky...

Camper English

Thanks Guillaume - the documentary didn't address this (it was nearly a direct quote from the film). But of course this just makes it even worse than GMO alone, which is already bad.

I often wonder why humans cultivate crops that start out poisonous. The potato is just one example--there are plenty out there. What compelled ancient people to keep breeding a poisonous plant until they could find one that wasn't deadly? And how did they figure out when it finally was edible? Trial and error?

Blair Frodelius


You are the epitome of Ubergeek! Way too cool!




Creepy. My husband and I just finished watching that documentary last night and the section on potatoes and apples caught my attention most. Are you in my head?


You should check out "King Corn"' also on Netflix...

Joaquín Simó

You're absolutely right to fear for agave Camper. All those lovely fields of blue agave are genetic clones of each other and all it will take is one pest or plague to wipe out decades worth of the tequila industry. It's not as if agaves can be harvested annually, the way potatoes or grapes are. If it takes between 6-12 years for a blue agave to reach maturity, how many lifetimes will it take to even establish what crossbreeding is or isn't working? Ask around Tales to talk with members of the Tequila Interchange Project, which has been pairing concerned US bartenders with the top Mexican researchers (biologists, chemists, anthropologists & historians) to open eyes to the many critical issues facing our beloved agave distillate. You know what fate befalls those who ignore history...

Camper English

I'd love to be part of the Tequila Interchange Project, as it sounds like a great program and maybe someone should report on what's happening....

Hoke Harden

As Joaquin already said, you're certainly right to fear for agave. It has already been rocked twice in recent memory with devastating effect, resulting in bust and boom in both the agricultural and economic senses. It's a tragedy waiting to happen again, what with the asexual repro, the favored technique, creating ever more prevalent conditions for the disaster to have maximum effect when it comes.

When your entire industry is predicated on one plant; then one particular type (hundreds) of that plant, the blue agave; then replications of that plant over and over and over again; that one disease or virus of fatal flaw looming can reach monstrous proportions. It's entirely foreseeable that tequila---as we know it and as it is defined now---could cease to exist.

Of course, we'll always have mezcal, but the tequila industry would be demolished.

One question would then be: would the absence of the dominance of tequila result in better...or worse...fortunes for agave spirits? I hope we never find out; the cost in economic terms would be too appalling.

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